Performance and Social Memory

Diego Benegas

"Virtual Performance and Activism on Line: HIJOS"

Introduction
Social memory and identity are preserved and enacted in public performances. Thus, they are privileged places for political contestation. In the age of the cyberspace, human rights organizations engage the Internet as a place for activism. HIJOS is a human rights organization started in Argentina by the children of those "disappeared" by the last dictatorship (1976-1983). Contesting the failure of institutional justice, HIJOS demonstrates in the street, exposing unpunished criminals of that period for public condemnation. They coined for this kind of demonstration the name "escrache". Networking from Europe and South America, they also use the Internet as a place for activism.
This paper is a part of a work in progress that intends to analyze the uses of the body in urban and virtual space for political contestation. Here I analyze several pages made by (or on) HIJOS focusing on HIJOS's on-line use of body, space, and relation to history. Their on-line activism has performative effects on urban space, bodies, and the history. On-line re-shaping of the body and urban space are becoming increasingly central to the construction of history and identity, not only in Argentina but in the Americas.
This article analyzes the body and the space in HIJOS web sites. I first draw on their street performances, and then on their use of the Internet. I analyze their contestation of the official national history, then certain features of their on-line performances. These are acts with performative effects, which work by redirecting the focus of the public scene. I finally analyze their re-construction of urban space through virtual performances.
1. Escrache
Even though this paper addresses HIJOS's on-line activities, this is but one of the features of a rich and complex political praxis. HIJOS have named "escrache" their original kind of street demonstration. They have theorized on it and on their own practices as a whole. On-line performances engage the largest international audience. However, they are only one of the features of their activism. The principal example of their web sites I analyze here is HIJOS's "web cuaderno" in the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics.
The "escrache" is HIJOS's original kind of demonstration. The word is a slag for "disclosing one person's identity or crimes for the public condemnation." HIJOS adopted that word to name their principal kind of street demonstration. The escrache consists on publishing, in flyers, newspapers or signs, the name of the targeted person and the crimes that person committed during the dictatorship, together with the causes that left that person unpunished. With these explanations, they publish the address of that person and directions to get there. They also publish in advance the date and time in which the escrache will start. At that moment they join in that point, usually in front of that person's house and they demonstrate there, informing the neighborhood about who their neighbor is. After them, other groups have utilized the name escrache to call different kinds of demonstrations, always with the same basic meaning of exposing to the public the identity of someone.
HIJOS have theorized about their own practice. In HIJOS's activism, the escrache is not a medium but the purpose itself (HIJOS 2001). It is not important how many people are there. It is not a demonstration of power. In my opinion, it has characteristics of a ritual. For it is a demonstration of memory, a demonstration of existence. HIJOS's on-line activism is always related to this central device, it seeks always the idea of showing to the public who and where the criminals are, and what they did.
It is impossible to differentiate HIJOS's on-line activism from the activities they develop in other realms. On-line performances, street demonstrations, and private meetings are complementary. On-line activism engages the largest international audience. However, it is but one of the features of the same praxis. This praxis works with identities in a personal level first, addressing the participants' personal searching. It evolves addressing the larger public of the city and the country - for there is no identity that exists by itself when it has no place in the social discourse. As a necessity of their searching for identity, HIJOS have to develop an activity of social transformation, at the levels of the city, the country, and the international scene as well.
In this paper I analyze HIJOS activities in cyberspace. Even though I think that some of the arguments developed here related to on-line performances are applicable to street performances as well, for reasons of space and time, here I only suggest those relations. In these analyses, I draw principally on the "web cuaderno" about HIJOS developed by the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics, but sometimes on other HIJOS's sites or sites about HIJOS. My argument is that all of them have certain common features.
HIJOS's "web cuaderno" in the Hemispheric Institute provides a map of Buenos Aires, with the houses of state terrorists and places of detention or torture marked, a history of the group, as well as historical information about the repression. There are also images and recorded sounds from their escraches. The initial song was taken from one of these demonstrations and alerts the neighbors that beside their houses there is a former concentration camp.
2. The Internet
Staging on the Internet, HIJOS's address and international audience, constitute an international network and extend the liminal effects of their demonstrations on the street to the web. Through the Internet they can speak to an international audience, having witnesses all around the globe. They could as well set up an international network. By this medium their performances can produce liminal moments of subjective change not only in an urban setting but in a much more spread out audience.
Staging on the Internet, HIJOS can speak to an international audience. To address this new worldwide public is the first reason for engaging the Internet. International witness plays an important role in cases of state violations of human rights against civilians. On the Internet they can do this in a much cheaper, more accessible and faster way than on any other medium.
The production of an international network was a logical consequence of the diaspora that was produced by the exile in the years of the dictatorship. The fact of what they denounce as the failure of Argentinean justice contributed to the searching for justice in other judicial systems (together with the actions of Madres, Abuelas, and other organizations). They found groups with other interests alike; other countries have passed through similar dictatorships and similar judicial processes of forgetting.
Through the Internet, HIJOS's performances produce liminal moments for their international audience (cf. Turkle 1995). When the public look at these sites, their subjectivities engage with them. As the activity of seeing is irreversible, this is a liminal moment, where in the no-place of the Internet, subjective changes happen (Turner 1986, 25). Participating in the on-line performance as spectators, the viewers accept a certain reality that is offered there. Engaging the public in these perceptive experiences, HIJOS encourage the people to become involved in this problematic. Confronting on-line performances, the spectators get involved and take positions on the issue. They can no longer be neutral. Even if they want to remain passive they are taking a political position.
3. Contesting official history
In these web sites, HIJOS are reconstructing social memory, contesting the official history, and trying to reverse the rhetoric of the military dictatorship. These on-line performances put before our eyes not so much a spectacle of horror, but rather a spectacle of the contestation (and thus failure) of a policy of silence and blindness. Their performative effect is a re-writing of national history.
With their web sites, HIJOS try to reconstruct social memory. Connerton (1989) affirms that Social memory is maintained through performances that restore it and reinvent it. Several devices serve to that task. A time-line in HIJOS's "web cuaderno" that relates the most important happenings of the dictatorship and the judicial processes and laws about those crimes, or the explanations of the history of the dictatorship in other web sites serve to this objective. Restoring memory, HIJOS's web pages are contesting the official attempt to erase the past.
Through the re-inscription of memory, HIJOS's web sites are contesting official national history. National history constitutes a precious legitimating tool that defines social status and rights of each social group. Memories, as Connerton states, "legitimate a present social order" (1989, 4). As a consequence, every social group tries to state (and stage) their own version of history. In Argentina, a dictatorial attempt to blind perception was complemented with an effort to erase memory (Taylor 1997). In the Americas, from colonialism to nationalism, different groups have proposed forgetting as the necessary task to build up a possible society (Lane 1998, and cf. Renan 1991).
In an attempt to re-write the history, HIJOS web sites contest the rhetoric of the military dictatorship. The rhetoric of the military government of the 70s was that those kidnappings never occurred (Taylor 1997). These pages constitute performances that inscribe memory where there was a strong policy of erasure and forgetting. "With nothing to see", seems to pray the official rhetoric, "there is nothing to do about it." HIJOS's on-line performances show us not so much a spectacle of horror, but rather an spectacle of the failure of a strategy of silencing, forgetting, and blinding.
4. Rituals of denunciation
HIJOS's on-line performances are acts. They work through the ritualistic power of repetition. According to HIJOS's motto, their actions are a consequence of the failure of official justice. They do not take justice on their own; their actions rely on confronting the audience with knowledge that is already public.
HIJOS's on-line performances are actions rather than descriptions. Rather than relying only in descriptions of the happenings of the dictatorship, or presentations of nostalgic images of the disappeared, HIJOS's sites show actions. In their sites it is possible to see images and sounds of their street performances, animations, and information about past and forthcoming actions. They also publish there some of the theoretical work that they develop, relating to issues of justice, politics and identity. Finally, they provide links to other pages related where it is possible to find other information and ways of participation. In the actions presented in HIJOS's sites their bodies are taking the scene, they are becoming visible. But they are staged as seeing, witnesses, and political subjects.
Their on-line performances work through the ritualistic power of repetition. Judith Butler (1997) highlights the role of repetition for the ritualistic effect of speech acts. According to that author, those acts work invocating the power of previous utterances. I think this concept is applicable to other performances as well. Together with street activism, theorization, and publishing, HIJOS on-line performances invocate the power of previous knowledge, perception, and thought about that issue. The force of their performances rely on the reactivation of that knowledge - especially with Argentinean audience, both in and out of the country.
5. Performativity
HIJOS's on-line performances are performative acts that reconstruct the subjectivities of the participants, the audience, and also the position of the targeted persons as well. These are performative actions because they establish ontological effects into reality. The performances act into the real by means of attributing essence to something that was forbidden to name.
HIJOS's on-line performances are performative acts that reconstruct subjectivities. Those actions engage the subjectivities of the participants and the audience. Reactivating previous experiences, fears, and knowledge, their performances engage the public that cannot remain neutral to the problematic. I wonder up to what point their actions have performative effects on the targeted persons as well. One interesting, though ironical, point of reversal is when targeted criminals denounce their feelings of being victims of HIJOS's "political prosecution."
The sites that HIJOS's set up are performative because they establish ontological effects into reality. Judith Butler defines performativity as "the discursive mode by which ontological effects are installed" (1996, 112). On-line performances are performative inasmuch as they produce or alter the nature of beings. On-line performances construct, modify, and define urban space, history, and subjectivities. The concept of performativity highlights that these virtual performances construct subjects and establish facts.
6. Redirecting the gaze
HIJOS's virtual performances engage some of the devices of state terrorism and reverse them. It is common in human rights activism to show the victims in order to claim justice. HIJOS's on-line activism, on the other hand, instead of showing the victims, reverses the direction of the gaze towards the criminals. They make an exposure of the criminals, identifying them, and showing them to the international community.
HIJOS virtual performances engage some of the devices of state terrorism and reverse them. To a strategy that worked through tracking and secret kidnappings, HIJOS oppose a strategy of tracking the criminals and unveiling their secret crimes. The attempt of the dictatorship was to silence people. The dictatorship took their bodies, negating their presence. The repressors did not even acknowledge the act of killing them; for the dictatorship did not stage assassinations but rather suppressed voices and presences. State terrorism created, thus, the figure of the "disappeared" as one of the characters of the spectacle of horror. The rhetoric of state terrorism portrays those bodies either as nonexistent or as corpses. Both on-line and on the street, HIJOS does not make so much use of the bodies of the disappeared, they point towards the bodies of the criminals. Even when they sometimes use images of disappeared persons, their practices are rather centered on the repressors.
It is common in human rights activism to show the victims in order to claim justice. Some of the web sites of human rights movements show photos of the disappeared in order to establish their existence and to retrieve their memory. Showing their bodies is the principal tool to demonstrate that they existed, and that they are still missing. HIJOS on-line activism reverses the direction of the gaze towards the criminals. They do not present bodies as corpses: they stage their own living bodies. In addition, HIJOS's rhetoric does not rely on the bodies of the disappeared, but rather they point to the unpunished criminals. They try to reverse the direction of the discourse. Rather than talking about "the disappeared" and why did that happened to them - that is the rhetoric of the military and rightists - HIJOS point towards "state terrorists", asking why are they free and unpunished.
7. Virtual and urban space
HIJOS's on-line performances re-construct the space. As the space in which we live is constructed through social practice, their coming into visibility, and thus, social and political existence, changes the meanings of the space. It attributes meanings where there was an active procedure of erasure and forgetting of social and historical meanings.
HIJOS's on-line performances construct urban space as historical and political space. Social space is constituted by social practices (Lefebvre 1994). HIJOS's on-line performances are performative actions that have discursive and performative dimensions on the space we inhabit. Re-shaping the map of a city, providing information about the history of a building in the years of the dictatorship, or locating the residence of an unpunished criminal, HIJOS's web sites change the meaning of urban spaces. They re-map the imagined city.
Becoming socially visible, and thus, coming into social and political existence, HIJOS change the meanings of urban space. Their activism attributes meaning where there was an active strategy of erasure of social and historical implications. In HIJOS's activism, the very fact of their existence, the very fact of staging their bodies - both on and off-line - is highly performative. It is performative because they contest a discourse that denies their existence.
Conclusion
The purpose of this paper was to analyze several pages made by HIJOS (or for HIJOS) as on-line performances, focusing on HIJOS's on-line use of body, space, and relation to memory and history. Even though this paper addresses HIJOS's on-line activities, this is only one of the features of a rich and complex political praxis that encloses on-line performances, street demonstrations (escraches), private meetings, theorization, and publishing of their own views.
Staging on the Internet, HIJOS's address an international audience, constitute an international network and extend the liminal effects of their street demonstrations to the web. In these web sites, they reconstruct social memory, reversing the rhetoric of the military dictatorship. Their effect is a re-writing of national history. HIJOS's activities on-line engage some of the devices of state terrorism and reverse them. Their virtual performances are acts which strategy relies on redirecting the public gaze towards the criminals. HIJOS's web sites re-construct the social space by inscribing meanings where there was an active procedure of erasure. These are performative acts that reconstruct the subjectivities of the participants, the audience and the social position of the criminals as well. In the history of the formation of HIJOS, their only way to construct a viable social identity was to contest the official narrative that denied them existence.
The Internet offers a space for performative expressions that engage subjectivities, but with a broader international audience. In current Latin America, these struggles for social and political existence become of paramount importance. Many other silenced and neglected social groups also fight against official strategies of exclusion. In an increasingly globalized world, on-line activism is called to play a role of growing importance, reshaping the meanings of international, national, and urban politics.

Virtual Performance and Activism on Line: HIJOS

Abstract
In the age of the cyberspace, human rights organizations engage the Internet as a place for activism. HIJOS is an organization that started in Argentina to claim justice for the crimes of the last dictatorship (1976-1983). The article analyzes HIJOS's on-line activism focusing on their use of body, spaces, and relation to official history. Their on-line activism has performative effects on urban spaces, subjectivities, and on national memory. On-line re-shaping of the body and the urban space are crucial for an understanding of the construction of identity and history in the Americas in the current century.

Resumen
En la era del ciberespacio las organizaciones de derechos humanos usan Internet como un espacio de activismo. H.I.J.O.S. es una organización iniciada en Argentina para reclamar justicia por los crímenes de la última dictadura (1976-1983). El presente artículo analiza el activismo on-line de H.I.J.O.S., haciendo hincapié en el uso que allí se hace del cuerpo y el espacio en relación con la historia oficial. Las performances virtuales de H.I.J.O.S. tienen efectos performativos sobre el espacio, las subjetividades y la historia nacional. Comprender la reconstrucción virtual del cuerpo y el espacio urbano es crucial para pensar los actuales procesos identitarios y de construcción de la historia en América.
Bibliography

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Butler, Judith. Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative. New York: Routledge, 1997.
Connerton, Paul. How Societies Remember. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
Hijos. "Pensar el escrache." In HIJOS Magazine. Au 2001. Also available on-line at: http://hemi.nyu.edu/cuaderno/hijos/index.html
Lane, Jill. "On Colonial Forgetting: the Conquest of New Mexico and Its Historia". In The Ends of Performance, ed. by P. Phelan and J. Lane, 52-72. NY: New York Univ. Press, 1998.
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Taylor, Diana. Disappearing Acts: Spectacles of Gender and Nationalism in Argentina's "Dirty War". Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1997.
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Resources: Related web sites
HIJOS's Sites
HIJOS Web cuaderno: http://hemi.nyu.edu/cuaderno/hijos/index.html
HIJOS Stockholm: http://members01.chello.se/hijostockholm/Social
HIJOS Córdoba: http://www.famdesapcba.org.ar/Hijos.htm
HIJOS Rosario: http://ar.geocities.com/hijosrosario/
HIJOS Madrid: http://www.nodo50.org/hijos-madrid/h-portada.htm
HIJOS Netherlands: http://www.hijos.nl/index.html
HIJOS Guatemala: http://www.amnesty-usa.org/spanish/paises/guatemala/acciones/acuerdos_de_paz/hijos.html

Other sites
Wall of memory: http://www.desaparecidos.org/arg/victimas/
Project Disappeared: http://www.desaparecidos.org/main.html
Gallery of torturers: http://www.desaparecidos.org/arg/tort/
Disappeared Cordoba: http://www.desaparecidos.org/arg/cordoba/
Grupo Fahrenheit: http://www.desaparecidos.org/GrupoF/des/lugar.html
"Nunca Más", CONADEP report: http://www.nuncamas.org/
Concentration camps: http://www.nuncamas.org/ccd/ccd.htm
"Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo": http://www.wamani.apc.org/abuelas/
Relatives of disappeared persons, Cordoba: http://www.famdesapcba.org.ar/index2.htm