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Legacy Russell: Dead Troops1 Talk

August 6, 2012

On bearing witness, re-viewing trauma.

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Part of Goya's Desastres de la Guerra, image courtesy of Wikicommons.

By Legacy Russell

Modernity and privilege are both conditions that are, in part, defined by the access to choice. Choice, however, is one of the first things to be tried in an act of violence. It is choice that puts an ocean between the physical body that inflicts pain and the one that experiences it, and between the physical body that experiences pain and the one that witnesses it being doled out. The option to “turn away from [that which] simply makes us feel bad2:” or to make an active choice to bear witness, though certainly not a new dilemma, is one that has rapidly changed face since the early 2000s. What was once limited to a geographical and temporal specificity has been given new life and meaning with the introduction of social media, the concept of the Wiki, and the founding of Vimeo in 2004 and YouTube in 2005, which widened capabilities for participatory journalism and dialogue on a global scale. Goya’s Desastres de la Guerra has transformed: no longer set solely to paper, disaster is now in constant motion, and can be with us wherever we may go. Thus, the choice to see lies in whether or not one decides to hit “Play” or opt for “Pause.” As artists carry forth the tradition of social critique, one must wonder: what role does the creative community have in bearing witness to trauma?

At the moment, America is processing trauma in the aftermath of the shootings in Aurora, Colorado. The details of the event are unfolding, and the nation bears witness. What happened at midnight on July 20 in the Century 16 Theater is an immediate domestic example of the fiction of safe space, an illustration that the structures bodies operate within are made different largely by how one names them , those definitions further expanded by the choices individuals make when within them. In a recent piece by Dan Frosh and Kirk Johnson for the New York Times, the authors note:

“ . . . the psychological echo and the similar feel of the two massacres[—Columbine and Aurora—]was palpable: Theater 9 was a place of seeming safety, if not sanctuary, not unlike Columbine’s library, where some of the killings occurred. Both were ordinary settings that became death traps.”

Security is a myth of the civilized world, strong-armed by human nature and man-made at its best. It is an invisible agent of power that shows itself only when the laws of order are defied or tested by the actions of individuals. The world is safe and civil until it chooses not to be, and we are protected and unharmed until, one day, we are not. This culture of fear is a paralysis to better judgment. This genre of culture is a roadblock to making the appropriate preparations for tragedy, and a catalyst for a collective investment in items that symbolize safety—doors, alarms, locks, bells, lights, signs, gates—but which, in the event of a true assault, would do little to provide actual sanctuary. Though not a preventative society, America is, on the other hand, particularly apologetic and nostalgic; it is in this vein that the country has experted the routine of mourning, and of missing.

The role of the artist within the realm of social and political critique, oft making work as a catalyst toward the healing of wounds or reconciliation with some aspect of the world at large…parallels that of the witness.

The impact of events, such as those in Aurora, extend far beyond the site of the shooting: these events shake Americans, if briefly, out of a numbness to the atrocity of suffering. A real-time memento mori, it also is a reminder of one’s own privilege day to day on a global scale and the choices we make to engage with, or bypass, trauma that is not our own. The Aurora shooting unwinds one’s understanding of security. These violent acts took place in a movie theater, a space that is oft understood as one of recess. The movie theater within American culture has achieved the stamp of a peculiar sort of secular divinity; O’Hara put it best in 1960 with his “Ave Maria” to cinema, musing:

“ . . . it’s true that fresh air is good for the body
but what about the soul
that grows in darkness, embossed by silvery images . . .”

Spaces and objects that act as platform for creativity mirror this sanctity as well. Forums for the theater of making, these sites can be both literal and figurative rooms for meditation and greater reflection. In entering an art space, or reading a text, one walks toward and away from oneself simultaneously, experiencing a distancing from, and a nearing to, subjective truths. Trauma reenacted, reinterpreted, or represented in an art space, or within the pages of a book, has the capacity to create fissures and tears in moments of recess, an interruption to the numbness of rest. In doing so, these breaks assert that the creative documentation of pain cannot always remain a fiction to one’s conceptions of reality—art does not guarantee security, and that which is creative ought not to be branded as a safe space. Creative practice acts as a vessel for reconstructions of time, space, and experience. Reconstruction and review are key elements in the process of bearing witness.

In her book The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry reflects on how trauma unmakes and redresses the familiar3:

“The room, both in its structure and content, is converted into a weapon, deconverted, undone. Made to participate in . . . annihilation . . . , made to demonstrate that everything is a weapon, the objects themselves, and with them the fact of civilization, are annihilated: there is no wall, no window, no door, no bathtub, no refrigerator, no chair, no bed.”

The deconstruction of physical space, in tandem with the removal of choice, or the forceful steering of an individual’s will with the threat of violence, renders the world a dangerous place. In this world, the fallacies of architecture and design make themselves known as the myths they really are. On a national and international level, testimony plays the role of keeping in the present what otherwise would be localized to the past. The role of the witness is to manifest memory in current space. The structures one spends time within bear witness, too. The human body is not the only agent for remembrance, for memory, for trauma. Sites are vessels for these modes of collective consciousness, and they have the capacity to outlive the physical forms that enter and exit them, therefore structures and the objects within them are endowed with an amplified voice. In Toni Morrison’s Beloved—a book that seats itself most specifically within the sites of trauma tied to the histories of slavery within America—the story and the players within it unfold via the lens of “rememory.” Both a cultural and literary device, manifested by and shared between Morrison and her leading character, Sethe, rememory has been described as “ . . . a kind of psychic haunting in which the specifics of a traumatic incident are told and retold, even as the teller tries to block their full emergence into the conscious mind . . . rememory is both a reconciliation and a vexation, both a healing and a wounding.” This telling and retelling takes place with words, objects, and spaces alike.

And when language fails, while we struggle to forgive, bodies, rooms, and the objects within them are required to carry forth stories for retelling.

What Morrison does via rememory in her Beloved, science does with the implementation of forensic aesthetics. Thomas Keenan and Eyal Weizman’s Mengele’s Skull: The Advent of Forensic Aesthetics brings to the forefront the role inanimate objects play in the rememorizing of trauma. Keenan and Weizman note4:

“But if we are to endow bones with a voice, if they are to become witnesses, they are ones that do not speak for themselves. They need interpretation, translation, and assistance, especially if they are to convince non-specialists or the general public. Forensics is not only about the science of investigation but rather about its presentation to the forum. Indeed, there is an arduous labor of truth-construction embodied in the notion of forensics, one that is conducted with all sorts of scientific, rhetorical, theatrical, and visual mechanisms. It is in the gestures, techniques, and turns of demonstration, whether poetic, dramatic, or narrative, that a forensic aesthetics can make things appear in the world.”

If objects can be expected to perform within the forum of investigation, the ephemera of trauma—documentation—also assumes the role of witness. These “objects . . . deepen one’s sense of reality, as secular icons5.” The role of the artist within the realm of social and political critique, oft making work as a catalyst toward the healing of wounds or reconciliation with some aspect of the world at large—Morrison with her Beloved, Goya with his Desastres—parallels that of the witness. Though “it seems exploitative to look at . . . other people’s pain in an art gallery6,” when exploring the role the artist plays in the presentation of trauma, what Keenan and Weizman dub “visual mechanisms,” one wonders: is the artist a witness?

In “Secondary Witness,” curated by Tel Aviv-based Maayan Scheleff at Brooklyn’s International Studio & Curatorial Program (ISCP)7, artists Lana Čmajčanin, Dor Guez, Adela Jusic, Juan Manuel Echavarria, Avi Mograbi and Michael Zupraner strive to unpack this question. In an essay Scheleff explains8:

“The works in “Secondary Witness” touch upon the notion of testimony and explore the artist’s position as its mediator . . . The artists in “Secondary Witness,” natives to countries of conflict and connected to their protagonists in different ways, examine their place as secondary witnesses and their relations to the protagonists and their testimonies.”

Scheleff’s exhibition makes use of the vernacular of a culture steeped in the sanctity of the moving image. The exhibition therefore speaks to a culture saturated in trauma yet lethargic in its processing of pain. On this occasion, however, there is no choice provided to press “Pause” and walk away. Secondary Witness presents a collection of video works that house testimony within a series of enclosures: four belonging to the rooms within which each subject is filmed, four belonging to the box of the television or projection, four asserted by the gallery’s white walls. Thus, the illusion of ultimate security—white box as safe box, theater as sanctuary—is multiplied, the mirroring, monumental. The witness is on the screen, the artist is watching the witness, and visitors watch the witness through the eyes of the artist, experiencing the double-vision caused by the introduction of a camera’s lens. These tapes, looped, are contemporary etchings, a modern-media Lascaux or Altamira, a mark-making that proclaims the presence of a human hand, the proof of a life, the value of a body. Scheleff notes9:

“Many artworks in recent years . . . have ceased referring to testimony as a document of truth or as a proof of realness; instead they emphasize its inability to reflect an all-encompassing historical truth and focus on more poetic and subjective forms of documentation . . . Testimony is often a form of post-traumatic reconstruction of sometimes radical and incomprehensible events. As such, it is a site of trauma, and its documenter becomes an integral part of the occurrence and the event. Thus, a person who listens to the trauma will, to some extent, experience it himself . . .”

In entering the exhibition one is met with the harmonies of Juan Manuel Echavarria’s “Mouths of Ash” (2003-2004): survivors of brutalities in Colombia translate trauma into song in front of a video camera. Strung together, the narratives take on the aural cadence of an extended lullaby, one that presides as a melodic backdrop to the rest of the exhibition and, in looping, cannot be bypassed. Lana Čmajčanin’s “Female President” presents a woman in a suit—the artist herself—at a posturingly presidential podium, reading the testimony of a Bosnian woman who was raped during the Bosnian War. The polarities between these two works establish the spectrum within which the artists of Secondary Witness operate: some are silent observers, documentarians of that which has passed, while others are living monuments to violations of security and safe space, embodying the trauma themselves and representing testimony via the landscape of oral history.

Scheleff’s exhibition provides a finely executed case study for the role of witness within creative practice and the responsibilities that come with demystifying trauma. An artist must expose oneself in order to process exposure, an unveiling that can be challenging to navigate, and startling to encounter. Here, language is what is left to explain experience—something that cannot ever be translated with absolute accuracy, and is therefore destined to fail. And when language fails, while we struggle to forgive, bodies, rooms, and the objects within them are required to carry forth stories for retelling.

Legacy Russell is a writer, artist, and curator. She has worked at and produced programs for The Bruce High Quality Foundation, Creative Time, the Brooklyn Museum, the Whitney, and the Met. A candidate for an MRes of Visual Culture at Goldsmith’s University, her work explores mourning, remembrance, iconography, and idolatry within the public realm. She was interviewed about her performance project in New York City’s East Village and Lower East Side, Open Ceremony, for Guernica’s studio visit series, and her work has been featured in Guernica’s art section. Her performance, The Initiation, debuts December 2012 at The Museum of Arts and Design, New York. To stay tuned, follow her on Twitter: @legacyrussell.

1 Jeff Wall, “Dead Troops Talk (A Vision After an Ambush of a Red Army Patrol near Moqor, Afghanistan, Winter, 1986)”, Cibachrome transparency, 1992.
2 Susan Sontag. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003, p. 116.
3 Elaine Scarry. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. Oxford University Press, 1985, p. 28.
4 Thomas Keenan and Eyal Weizman. “Mengele’s Skull.” Cabinet Magazine, Issue 43: Forensics, Fall 2011. Online. http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/43/keenan_weizman.php. Accessed July 2012.
5 Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, p. 119.
6 Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, p. 119.
7 Currently on view at ISCP.
8 Mayan Scheleff. Secondary Witness, pp. 4-5. Published on the occasion of the exhibition Secondary Witness, curated by Mayan Scheleff. June 27-August 24, 2012.
9 Mayan Scheleff. Secondary Witness, page 4. Published on the occasion of the exhibition Secondary Witness, curated by Mayan Scheleff. June 27-August 24, 2012.

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3 comments for Legacy Russell: Dead Troops1 Talk

  1. Comment by T.M on August 6, 2012 at 10:23 am

    A gorgeously thoughtful piece, lyrically composed.

  2. Comment by Madeleine Hunt Ehrlich on August 6, 2012 at 5:46 pm

    This piece is an important reminder to artists to examine their practice as playing a role in a larger realm outside the internal exchanges of the canon. Bravo for continuing to challenge our assumptions about the potential within the aesthetic practice.

  3. Comment by brittni c. on August 9, 2012 at 2:00 pm

    For me, this piece really enunciates the shifting American cultural experience. Things that were once relegated as foreign to the majority of US citizens have become much more present and tangible in today’s society. Violence, as it had been understood, discriminates. Violence is understandable when limited to poor populations, abroad and domestically. It “makes sense” that dozens of people in a poor foreign country would die monthly, just as it “makes sense” that dozens of people in Chicago would die monthly. But when violence becomes indiscrimate and threatens politicians, moviegoers, “normal people,” and is not limited to “others”, it challenges our understanding of safety and, in effect, the privilege of not having to deal. This isn’t the first time in our history that this has happened (e.g. Reconstruction, civil rights era, etc.), but I believe the impact is different given the growing diversity of our nation. In short, I enjoyed what is written here, along with the underlying themes…sorry for all of the “air quotes” :)

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