Performing Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Reenactment by Rebecca Schneider

Lara Nielsen | Macalester College

Schneider, Rebecca. Performing Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Reenactment. New York: Routledge, 2011. 272 pages; $34.95.

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The cover image of Rebecca Schneider’s much anticipated Performing Remains offers a photo of an artificial, presumably plastic, severed finger Schneider found in the Rhode Island grasses of a US Civil War reenactment field, a prop she speculates was used in the specifically military theatre of surgical reenactment. Schneider asks: what intermedial work does this finger enact? Building on significant scholarship in the fields of art, visual culture, and performance studies that interrogate the intermedial work of performance (particularly Fred Moten’s question about the sound of a photograph), Schneider ponders in Performance Remains the instabilities as well as the institutionalizing effects of reenactments of the past (Moten 2003; Phelan 2003; Mitchell 2004; Blocker 2009; Jones 2011).

Schneider reads the “faux finger” as a “troubled index,” one that metonymically points towards other kinds of remainders that para-Civil War reenactment performance projects leave in their wake. Schneider hones in on the more disciplinarily “close” problem of reenactment, emphasizing that she is “interested in live reenactment work that strives for literal precision rather than tries to avoid it with the rubric of ‘interpretation’” (15). In the quest for precision in reenactment performance, Schneider is interested in the concept of temporal drag, or the time-lag that seeps through the most precise reenactments.

More questions quickly follow: What is the relationship between reenacting historical events, such as the Civil War, and other kinds of reenacting events that were defined, at the time of “original” presentation, by intense aesthetic engagement with the enigmas of intermediality, whether in theatre, performance, or photography (for example, the work of Suzan-Lori Parks, Linda Mussman, The Wooster Group, Marina Abramovic, Cindy Sherman)? If techniques of production demanding documentation (networking and/as advertising, for instance) reveal the institutionalizing profits of artistic posterity (even in the field of performance), what logics and circuits of production govern Civil War reenactments—which Schneider notes are remarkably elusive and inaccessible to audiences?

Querying reenactment practices as constituting nothing less than a “battle concerning the future of the past” (4), Schneider’s book usefully engages critical debates about the status of re-performance and its relationship to authorship, authenticity, and the ever-growing memory industry (Richard 2010). Following Claire Bishop’s characterization of how today’s artists “engage strategies of mediation that include delegation, re-enactment, and collaboration” (2008: 111), Schneider suggests that “the trouble with reenactment, it seems, is its capacity to flummox those faith-keepers who hold that the present is fleeting and entirely self-identical, or who hold that the movement from the present to the future is never by way of the past, or who believe firmly in absolute disappearance and loss of the past as well as the impossibility of its recurrence” (53). In the process, Schneider stresses the need to question how audiences are interpellated as witnesses to the monumentalizations of the past.

Schneider’s stated goal is to trouble “the prevalence of presentism, immediacy, and linear time” in favor of the “againness” of reenactment’s queer time, where time can be understood as “full of holes or gaps and art as capable of falling or crossing in and out of the spaces between live iterations” (6), and thus to advance historiographic inquiry. Schneider is particularly astute at charting the genealogies of performance studies debates about presence and disappearance, including the predilections of multiple article versions in her own publishing profile. Schneider deftly “re-performs” previously published material, acknowledging the difficulty of tracking the archives of even written sources. Writing, too, is a reenactment of performance.

Because this year marks the 150th “anniversary” of the beginning of the Civil War, I would like to return to Schneider’s suggestion that Civil War reenactors “rightfully see themselves as inventing an archive, rather than simply performing obedience to one” (10), without needing much in the way of a formal audience. Neither a game nor (emphatically) theatre, reenactors re-perform history on sites that “pass as Gettyburg, Antietam, Vicksburg” (12), and where the “tangle of then and now” offers all the complications of “restored behavior” (Schechner 1985). Of course, Civil War reenactors examine and imagine a very particular plane of civil war “action,” and today take on roles that include soldiers, combat surgeons, and cadavers, producing the expected if terrible testimonies of documentable battle tactics, suffering, as well as producing the rather more disquieting fields of “the dead” and their remains.  It is finally this symbolic and haunting pool of remainders—from the performances of theatrical and photographic representational cuts to literally “cut” body parts—that drives Schneider’s expertly cultivated project.


Lara Nielsen is Assistant Professor in Theatre & Dance, and Latin American Studies, at Macalester College (Twin Cities).  She has published articles and reviews in Performance Research, Women & Performance, Contemporary Theatre Review, Theatre Journal, Journal of Dramatic Theory & Criticism, TDR, Law Culture, and the Humanities, and is co-editing Neoliberalism and Global Theatres: Performance Permutations (Palgrave). Her monograph, Sacrifice Plays: Mapping Labor, Performance, and Beisbol Modernities, is forthcoming.


Works Cited

Bishop, Claire. 2008. “Outsourcing Authenticity? Delegated Performance in Contemporary Art.” Double Agent. London: Institute of Contemporary Art.

Blocker, Jane. 2009. Seeing Witness: Visuality and the Ethics of Testimony. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Jones, Amelia. 2011. “’The Artist is Present:’ Artistic Re-enactments and the Impossibility of Presence.” TDR: The Drama Review 55:1 (T209).

Mitchell. WJT. 2004. What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Moten, Fred. 2003. In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Phelan, Peggy. 2003. Unmarked: the politics of performance. New York and London: Routledge.

Richard, Nelly. 2010. Crítica de la memoria: 1990-2010. Santiago: Ediciones UDP.

Schechner, Richard. 1985. Between Theatre and Anthropology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.