DNA of Performance

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Posted by Diana Taylor on March 31, 192003 at 13:05:14:

[Diana Taylor, from The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas. Forthcoming: Duke University Press, 2003.]
"You are Here:" The DNA of Performance

May 31, 2000, Buenos Aires, Argentina. 6:30 p.m. I’d been given a map and flier. Escrache al Plan Condor, organized by H.I.J.O.S.—the children of the disappeared. When I arrived, it was just getting dark. Young people had begun to converge on the designated street corner. I knew some of them, the members of H.I.J.O.S. who had invited me to participate, and young activists from Group Arte Callejero. The noise was revving up. A van, fitted with loud speakers, started emitting rock music. Activists prepared their signs, placards, photographs, and banners. For all the motion and commotion, I felt a haunting. These young people, with their long hair, beards, Andean ponchos, and their nouveau hippy chic, took me back to the 70s in Latin America. That’s what I looked like back then. That’s what their parents—the generation of the disappeared—looked like. Now, in the year 2000, a new generation of activists was taking to the streets in Buenos Aires, tonight to protest the hemispheric “Plan Condor,” organized by the CIA and implemented by the military dictatorships throughout Latin America. This network assured that persecuted leftists would be caught and ‘disappeared’ even if they were lucky enough to escape their own country. In Argentina, these leftists were tortured (among many other places) in two garages, the Orletti and the Olimpo, which functioned as concentration camps. Today, people take their cars there to be serviced, many of them oblivious to this history. H.I.J.O.S. was going to remind all who would listen about this criminal history through the escrache.
The atmosphere was festive, but serious nonetheless. ‘Be careful,’ people warned each other. Infiltrators had been known to join previous escraches and start trouble to provoke police intervention. ‘Hold hands. Don’t let anyone into the circle. Keep your eyes on those next to you.’ The giant circle inched forward, our trajectory characterized by stops and starts as we moved together, dancing, shouting, singing, down the streets of Buenos Aires. The van, churning out the music and running commentary, slowly led the way. “Neighbors, listen up! Did you know that you live next to a concentration camp? While you were at home, cooking veal cutlets, people were being tortured in those camps.” I looked up to see our audience--people on balconies, behind windows, looking down at the massive spectacle. Some waved. Others closed the curtains or retreated inside. Some must have joined the circle because there were more and more of us. We kept going, first to Olimpo, where the police were waiting, lined up in front of the garage. Then, after writing the crimes committed there by the Armed Forces in yellow paint on the pavement in front of the block-long building, the group moved on the Orletti. Again, the police were waiting, and again, H.I.J.O.S. covered the street with yellow paint.

[Figure 1, 2, 3, Escrache al Plan Condor, May 31, 2000. Diana Taylor]

Marking the space was thrilling—members of H.I.J.O.S. and all those accompanying them started dancing and singing again. Individual members began addressing our group, talking about what the event meant to them. The trauma was palpable, the emotional power contagious, and the sense of political empowerment energizing. Even I, a foreigner with little personal relationship to the context, felt renewed hope and resolve. I had returned to Argentina with a sense of loss—the Madres were getting older. Although they continue their weekly march around the Plaza de Mayo, I wondered how the human rights movement would survive their demise. But here were H.I.J.O.S., young, joyful, and determined to carry on the performative protest. If performance transmits traumatic memory and political commitment, those of us accompanying them seemed to have caught it.
Why, I wondered, do so few scholars think about the way that performance transmits traumatic memory? How do those of us who have not suffered the violence come to understand it? And participate, in our own ways, in further transmitting it? This chapter explores these questions. While I cannot transfer the impact of the event through the live enactment I experienced, I hope I succeed nonetheless in further transmitting my reflections to the reader through this writing.

"Escraches," acts of public shaming, constitute a form of guerrilla performance practiced by Argentina's children of the disappeared to target criminals associated with the 'Dirty War.' Usually escraches are loud, festive, and mobile demonstrations involving 300 to 500 people. Instead of the circular, ritualistic movement around the square that we have come to identify with the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, H.I.J.O.S., the organization of children of the disappeared and political prisoners, organize carnavalesque protests that lead participants directly to a perpetrator's home/office or to a clandestine torture center. Escraches are highly theatrical and well-organized. Theatrical because the accusation works only if people take notice. Giant puppets, military pigs-on-wheels and at times huge placards of photo IDs of the disappeared accompany the protesters as they jump and sing through the streets. [figure 4, 5, H.I.J.O.S. and Grupos Arte Callejero participate in an escrache. Escraches are characterized by their roudy and festive mood. A truckload of protestors exhibit their signs and banners. The banner on the truck exclaims: ‘If there is not justice, there will be an escrache.’ Photos courtesy of H.I.J.O.S.] All along the route, vans with loud speakers remind the community of the crimes committed in that vicinity. Well-organized because H.I.J.O.S. prepares the community for the 'acción.' For a month or more before the escrache, they canvas the neighborhoods in which perpetrators live and work showing photographs of them and giving information. Did they know that their neighbor was a torturer? How do they feel about working with him? Or serving him lunch? Or selling him cigarettes? They plaster the photograph in the shops, restaurants, streets and neighborhood walls. When the time for the escrache arrives, H.I.J.O.S. find themselves accompanied not just by human rights activists but by those incensed that they continue to live in such proximity to political violence. With the help of activist artists, such as Grupo Arte Callejero, they post street signs which incorporate the photograph to mark the distance to a perpetrator’s home [figure 6, Street signs with the photograph of the perpetrator to mark the distance to his home. Courtesy of Grupo Arte Callejero, photo sent separately]. When they reach their destination, H.I.J.O.S. paint the repressor’s name and crimes in yellow paint on the sidewalk in front of the building. Even though the police, always forewarned, circle the targeted property, the protesters peacefully and persistently go about their work of making the crime visible. The human rights violations, they remind onlookers, have not been punished nor, in fact, ended. Protesters provide an alternate map of Argentina’s socio-historical space: “You are here” –at 500 meters from a concentration camp. [figure 7, “You are here” –at 500 meters from a concentration camp. Courtesy of Grupo Arte Callejero photo sent separately]
While carnavlesque and rowdy, escraches enact collective trauma. These performances not only make visible the crimes committed by the military dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s, but they also make visible the lasting trauma suffered by families of the disappeared and the country as a whole. However, the inter-related protest movements staged by H.I.J.O.S., by the Mothers, and by the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, use trauma to animate their political activism. They have contributed to human rights efforts by successfully transmitting traumatic memory from one generation to another, and from the Argentine political context to an international public that did not live the violence firsthand. Those acts of transfer prove vital to an understanding of cultural agency.
How does performance transmit traumatic memory? The individual focus of trauma studies clearly overlaps with the more public and collective focus of performance studies.
1) Performance protest helps survivors cope with individual and collective trauma by using it to animate political denunciation.
2) Trauma, like performance, is characterized by the nature of its ‘repeats.’
3) Both make themselves felt affectively and viscerally in the present.
4) They’re always in situ. Each intervenes in the individual/political/social body at a particular moment and reflects specific tensions.
5) Traumatic memory often relies on live, interactive performance for transmission. Even studies that emphasize the link between trauma and narrative make evident in the analysis itself that the transmission of traumatic memory from victim to witness involves the shared and participatory act of telling and listening associated with live performance. Bearing witness is a live process, a doing, an event that takes place in real time, in the presence of a listener who “comes to be a participant and a co-owner of the traumatic event.”
The possibility for re-contextualization and transmission of performance and trauma nonetheless point to important differences. In performance, behaviors and actions can be separated from the social actors performing them. These actions can be learned, enacted, and passed on to others. The transmission of traumatic experience more closely resembles “contagion” —one ‘catches’ and embodies the burden, pain and responsibility of past behaviors/events. Traumatic experience may be transmittable, but it’s inseparable from the subject who suffers it.
Thus, in understanding performance protests driven by traumatic memory, it’s important to bring trauma studies, which focus mainly on personal pathology and one-on-one interactions, into dialogue with performance studies to allows us to explore the public, non-pathological cause and canalization of trauma. By emphasizing the public, rather than private, repercussions of traumatic violence and loss, social actors turn personal pain into the engine for cultural change.
The protest movements I examine here developed along clear generational lines around the ‘disappeared’: grandmothers (las Abuelas), mothers (las Madres) and children of the disappeared, exiled, and political prisoners, H.I.J.O.S. (Hijos por la Identidad y la Justicia, contra el Olvido y el Silencio, Children for Identity and Justice, against Forgetting and Silence). Just as the generations share genetic materials, which these groups have actively traced through DNA testing, there are performance strategies (DNA of performance) that link their forms of activism. One important feature is that these groups see themselves linked genetically, politically, and performatively. Here I will look at various iterations of performance protest involving photography that have taken place over the last twenty-five years. One clear strategy that reveals both continuing and transformation of cultural materials becomes recognizable in the use of the photo IDs to bring together the scientific (DNA testing) and performative claims in transmitting traumatic memory. Strategies, like people, have histories. In this case, the strategies work to re-appear those who have been erased from history itself.
From 1977, almost at the beginning of the “Dirty War,” the Abuelas and the Madres started calling public attention to the dictatorship’s practice of “disappearing” those who opposed them in any way. Among the 30,000 disappeared who were tortured and murdered, 10,000 of them were women, hundreds of them pregnant. They were killed as soon as they gave birth. Their children, born in captivity, were ‘disappeared’—not killed in this case but adopted by military families. There are still about 500 ‘disappeared’ children—young people born in Argentine concentration camps between 1976 and 1983 who may know little or nothing about the circumstances surrounding their birth. However, the military did not abduct the young children who had already been born to the people they 'disappeared.' These, whom I will call ‘children of the disappeared’ (as opposed to the ‘disappeared children’), were born before their parents were abducted and were raised by their relatives. Like their disappeared siblings, many of these young people grew up knowing little or nothing about their parents. One member of H.I.J.O.S. told me that he grew up believing that his parents had been killed in an automobile accident. His relatives lied because they did not want him, like his parents, to put himself in danger by becoming involved in issues pertaining to social justice. So there are two sets of children-- the disappeared children who usually do not know their history and, hence, the existence of these brothers and sisters. And the children of the disappeared, many of them now informed and active in H.I.J.O.S., who continue to look for their siblings and pursue social justice.
While H.I.J.O.S. explicitly acknowledge their many debts to Abuelas and Madres—especially, perhaps, the fact that these women initiated the performance protest associated with the disappeared—their own performances reflect ensuing political and generational changes. What strategies get transmitted? How do these groups use performance to make a claim?
Let’s look first at how the Madres and Abuelas perform their accusations and demands.
The spectacle of elderly women in white head scarves carrying huge placards with photo IDs of their missing children has become an international icon of human rights and women’s resistance movement. By turning their “interrupted mourning process” into “one of the most visible political discourses of resistance to terror (491)” the Abuelas and Madres introduced a model of trauma driven performance protest. Each Thursday afternoon, for the past twenty-five years, the women have met in Plaza de Mayo to repeat their show of loss and political resolve. At first, at the height of the military violence, fourteen women walked around the Plaza two by two, arm in arm, to avoid prohibitions against public meetings. Though ignored by the dictatorship, the women’s idea of meeting in the square caught on throughout the country. Before long, hundreds of women from around Argentina converged in the Plaza de Mayo in spite of the increasing military violence directed against them. Ritualistically, they walked around this square, located in the heart of Argentina’s political and financial center. Turning their bodies into billboards, they used them as conduits of memory. They literally wore the photo IDs that had been erased from official archives. Week after week in the Plaza de Mayo, the Madres accused the military of disappearing their children and demanded that they be returned alive (“Aparición con vida”). After the worst moment of military violence passed, Abuelas and Madres started carrying a huge banner in front of them as they walked around the Plaza. With the return to democracy in 1983, they began to accuse the new government of granting impunity to the criminals.

[Figure 8, Protests by Abuelas and Madres de Plaza de Mayo denounce the government by using banners. They carry the photographs of their disappeared. Guillermo Loiácono (1983), Figure 9, Madres de Plaza de Mayo continue their condemnation of their government’s human rights abuses. Diana Taylor (2000)]
Using loudspeakers, they continued to make their demands, naming their children and naming those responsible for abducting them. They claimed the Plaza as their own, painting their emblematic scarves, made of their children’s diapers, in white paint around the circle (see figure 7). Even now, they continue their condemnation of the government’s inaction in regard to the human rights abuses committed during the ‘Dirty War.’ [Figure 10, Otro govierno, misma impunidad means ‘different government, same impunity.’ Diana Taylor (2000)] Otro govierno, misma impunidad means ‘different government, same impunity.’ Each claim has been backed by performative evidence—the placards with the photo IDs, the list of repressors. Much as the Abuelas relied on DNA testing to confirm the lineages broken by the military, they and the Madres used photo IDs of their missing children as yet another way to establish ‘truth’ and lineage.
This representational practice of linking the scientific and performative claim is what I call the ‘DNA of performance.’ What does the performative proof accomplish that the scientific cannot achieve on its own? How does this representational practice lay a foundation for movements that will come after it?
DNA functions as a biological ‘archive’ of sorts, storing and transmitting the codes that mark the specificity of our existence both as a species and as individuals. Yet it also belongs to the human-made archive, forsenic or otherwise. The archive in this case maintains a particularly grisly core—DNA, dental records, documents, photographs, police files, and bones—supposedly resistant to change and political manipulation. As the forensic specialist Clyde Snow observed, “these people are probably more afraid of the dead than they are of the living. Witnesses may forget throughout the years, but the dead, those skeletons, they don’t forget. Their testimony is silent, but it is also very eloquent.” The scientific, archival ‘evidence’ of DNA, offered by the Abuelas, was clearly central to their strategy of tracing their missing loved ones while their accused the military of their disappearance.
Testimonial transfers and performance protest, on the other hand, are two forms of expressive social behavior that belong to the discursive workings of what I have called the ‘repertoire.’ The embodied experience and transmission of traumatic memory—the interaction between people in the here and now whether in giving testimony, psychoanalysis, a demonstration, or a trial—make a difference in the way that knowledge is transmitted and incorporated. The performative dimension of their protests brought attention to the national tragedy in the first place. Abuelas and Madres performed the evidence by placing it on their bodies as they took to the Plaza. Human rights trials and commissions, such as Argentina's National Commission on the Disappeared (which issued Nunca Más to report its findings ) or South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, understand the importance of live hearings in making citizens feel like co-owners of the country's traumatic past.
In-between and overlapping systems of knowledge and memory constitute a vast spectrum that might combine the workings of the ‘permanent’ and the ‘ephemeral’ in different ways. Each system of containing and transmitting knowledge exceeds the limitations of the other. The ‘live’ can never be contained in the archive; the archive endures beyond the limits of the ‘live.’
DNA of performance, then, draws from two heuristic systems, not only the biological and the performative, but the archival and repertoire. The linkage refutes colonial notions that the archival and biological is more lasting or accurate than embodied performance practice. Both binary systems prove fragile on an individual basis, both susceptible to corruption and decay. Biologist Richard Dawkins makes an important contribution to our thinking about genetic and cultural forms of transmission as well as the repertoire and the archive. The cultural replicators he calls ‘memes’ (coined to evoke imitation, memory and the French même to sound like gene). Examples of memes include many of the same embodied practices and forms of knowledge that I associate with the repertoire: "tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches." Though a scientist, Dawkins challenges prejudices that valorize the permanence of the archive and scientific over the repertoire. Neither individual genetic or memetic materials usually last more than three generations. Books fall apart, and songs forgotten. So longevity alone cannot guarantee transmission. Things disappear, both from the in the archive and the repertoire. Neither can “copy-fidelity” account for transmission; this too proves faulty, both with genes and memes, in the archive and in the repertoire. Ideas and evidence change, at times beyond recognition. So cultural materials, Dawkins concludes, survive if they catch-on. They need to be “realized physically” (207) in the public arena. The Madres movement, Dawkins would say, was a meme that ‘caught on.’ Human rights movements throughout Latin America, the Middle East, the former Soviet Union and other areas have started carrying photographs of their disappeared.
DNA of performance differs somewhat from Joseph Roach’s “genealogies of performance.” In thinking about the transmission of cultural memory, Roach explores “how culture reproduces and re-creates itself by a process that can best be described by the word surrogation. In the life of a community, the process of surrogation does not begin or end but continues as actual or perceived vacancies occur in the network of relations that constitutes the social fabric. Into the cavities created by loss through death or other forms of departure […] survivors attempt to fit satisfactory alternatives” (2). His example: “the King is dead, long live the King.”
Surrogation explains numerous re-iterations that involve a narrowing-down—instead of the two ‘royal’ individuals, we have ‘one’ King. The act of substitution erases the antecedent. “King” is a continuous role that endures regardless of the many individuals who might come to occupy the throne. The model of surrogation stresses seemingly uninterrupted continuity over what might be read as rupture, the recognizable ‘one’ over the particularities of the many.
While it is imperative to think of performance as a practice that persists and participates in the transmission of knowledge and identity, it is equally urgent to note the cases in which surrogation as a model for cultural continuity is rejected precisely because, as Roach notes, it allows for the collapse of vital historical links and political moves. Whether one sees cultural memory as continuous because it relies on or rejects surrogation might well depend on the beholder. There are many examples in the colonial history of the Americas of colonizers and evangelists clinging to their belief of successful substitutions (their values and images supplanting 'pagan' ones) when in fact a performative shift and doubling had occurred that preserved, rather than erased, the antecedents. A 'pagan' deity might continue to exist within the Catholic image meant to replace it. The strategy of using photographs of the disappeared that links these various movements is also a way of highlighting, rather than filling, those vacancies created by disappearance. Thinking about a ‘DNA of performance’ helps focus on certain kinds of transmission that refuse surrogation. The use of these images suggests, as does the analysis of DNA, that nothing ‘disappears’ —every link is there, visible, resistant to surrogation. Grandmothers, Mothers, the ‘disappeared’, and the children establish a chain in and through presentation and representation.
These claims—the genetic and the performative—work together. The relationship is not simply metaphoric. Rather, I see both as interrelated heuristic systems. They are linked and mutually sustaining models that humans have developed to think about the transmission of knowledge. Moreover, they work both ways. Forensic specialists have long relied on representation, performance, and live presentation to convey an understanding of their findings.
[Figure 11, This photograph, "Anatomy of Terrorism," shows the use of photography as evidence during the “Trial of the Generals” in 1985. Photo Daniel Muzio.] This photograph, "Anatomy of Terrorism," shows the use of photography as evidence during the “Trial of the Generals” in 1985. The room is in darkness; the 'audience' sits facing the illuminated screen; a 'director' asks people to focus on the photograph of the cracked skull. The scales of justice, engraved on the high-back chair to the left, promise due process. The demonstration effects social change, as those in attendance have the power to pass judgment. Scientific explanations and ‘proofs,’ the photograph shows, depend for their validity on the way in which they are presented and viewed by jury and judge. The theatrical nature of this presentation is not metaphoric—rather it delivers the claim itself. Facts cannot speak for themselves. The case needs to be convincingly presented. So too, thinking about a ‘DNA of performance’ means that performance contributes to the proof of the claim itself.
The photographs used by Abuelas and Madres and later (in a rather different way) by H.I.J.O.S. present a kind of ‘proof,’ evidence of the existence of the people in them. They played a particularly vital archival and performative role at the beginning of the movement, in the absence of other social and legal structures that could redress the crimes against humanity committed by the Armed Forces. Like DNA, the photo IDs strive to establish the uniqueness of each individual. No two human beings have the exact same DNA, even though our shared genetic make-up is strong enough to link us all to the pre-historic Lucy. Like DNA testing, photo IDs usually serve to identify strangers in relation to the State. Normally categorized, de-contextualized, and filed away in official or police archives, they grant the government power over the marked ‘citizen.’ Photographed in conditions of absolute sameness—white background, frontal pose, hair back, ears exposed, no jewelry—the individual differences become more easily accessible to scrutiny and ‘positive identification.’ The tight framing allows for no background information, no context, no network of relationships. The images appear to be ‘artless’ and precise. Yet they are highly constructed and ideological, isolating and freezing an individual outside the realms of meaningful social experience. The images tend to be organized in non-affiliative categories—that is, individuals may be classified as ‘criminals’ or ‘subversives’ but not as members of a particular family.
DNA and photography offer radically different proofs of ‘presence’ of course, each one making visible what it totally inaccessible to the other. We can’t test a photograph for DNA anymore than we can recognize physiognomies by looking at our genes. But both DNA and the photographs transmit highly coded information. Like DNA, the images and strategies conveyed through these performances build on prior material, replicating and transforming the received ‘codes.’ Not all the inherited materials get re-used—some are incorporated selectively, others get discarded as ‘junk DNA.’ DNA, moreover, does not dictate biological determinism. Recent studies have shown the degree to which it is capable of changing, rather than simply transmitting codes in the process of cultural adaptation through “messenger RNA.” So too, these performances change the socio-political environment even as they develop within it. The information conveyed through the performances, like the genetic information, appears in highly coded and concentrated, yet eminently readable form. The images function as markers, identifying an entire movement.
The performance protest using photographs in itself was an example of adaptation to the political context. In Argentina, the photo ID has played a central role both in the tactics of the Armed Forces and in the protests by relatives of the ‘disappeared.’ When a whole class of individuals (classified as ‘criminals’ and ‘subversives’) was swept off the streets, their images in the archives disappeared with them. Although the government claimed not to know anything about the missing persons, witnesses have testified that they saw officials destroy the photo I.D.s and other photographic images of prisoners in their control. Families of the disappeared also testified that members of the military or para-military task forces raided their homes and stole photographs of their victims even after they had ‘disappeared’ the victims themselves. The idea, supposedly, was that by disappearing the documentary ‘evidence’ of a human life one could erase all traces of the life itself. This strategy works as the negative image of what Roland Barthes has called the “special credibility of the photograph” (10). Destroy the photograph; destroy the ‘credibility’ or the very existence of a life. Both the Madres and the military enact—in their own ways—the faith in photography as one particular type of evidence.
When the Madres took to the street to make the ‘disappearance’ visible, they activated the photographs, performed them. The need for mobility, combined with the importance of visibility from a distance, determined the over-size, yet light placards that the women paraded around the plaza. This, like all performances, needed to engage the on-looker. Would the national and international spectators respond to their actions, or look away? And by wearing the small photo IDs around their necks, the Madres turned their bodies into archives, preserving, and displaying the images that had been targeted for erasure. Instead of the body in the archive associated with surveillance and police strategies, they staged the archive in/on the body, affirming that embodied performance could make visible that which had been purged from the archive. Wearing the images, like a second skin highlighted the affiliative relationship that the military tried to annihilate. The Madres created an epidermal, layered image, super-imposing the faces of their loved ones on themselves. These bodies, the images made clear, were connected—genetically, affiliatively, and now of course politically. This representational tactic of indexibility mirrored the more ‘scientific’ one undertaken by the Abuelas—to establish the genetic link between the surviving family members and the missing children by tracing DNA.
The Abuelas, in turn, picked up the representational strategies used by the Madres to further develop the use of photography in searching for their disappeared grandchildren. While they have continued to use DNA testing to find these children, they have also begun to rely heavily on photography. In a recent exhibit, “Memoria gráfica de Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo” at the Centro Cultural Recoleta in Buenos Aires (April 2001), they exhibited the same photographs that the Madres have long paraded around the plaza. Here, the photos are set up in family units—the photos of the missing father and the missing mother. Next to it, however, they inserted a mirror in place of the photo of the disappeared child. Spectators looking into that mirror need to ask themselves: am I the missing child? In these photos

[Figures 12, 13, The placement of mirrors next to images of the disappeared in the photography exhibit Memoria Gráfica of the Abuelas de Plza de Mayo forces spectators to ask themselves: am I their disappeared child? Photos by Gabriella Kessler, courtesy of Paula Siganevich], a mother and daughter walk through the exhibit. Although a photography exhibit might seem to belong more to the ‘archive’ than to the embodied ‘repertoire,’ this one works like a performance installation that produces shock and hopefully, on some level, recognition. The museum space itself transforms into a politically haunted yet all too ‘live’ environment of trauma. The installation demands ‘live’ participation and identification. A person cannot walk through the exhibit without being caught in the frame. Even the photographer, as these images illustrate, finds herself reflected and implicated in this exhibit that does not allow itself to been viewed or photographed without engagement. The spectator may not be the disappeared child, but 500 children continue to be disappeared. Not just personal, or even national, issues of memory and identity are at stake. As the Abuelas put it, “encontrarlos es encontrarnos” (finding them is finding ourselves). Memory, as the Abuelas’ exhibit makes clear, is an active political practice. “When they ask us what we do, we can respond, we remember.” Traumatic memory intervenes, reaches out, catches the spectators unaware, and places them directly within the framework of violent politics. The mirrors remind the onlookers that there are several ways of ‘being there.’ The DNA of performance places participants and spectators in the genealogical line, heirs to a continuing struggle for national identity and definition.
Like Abuelas and Madres, associations that politicize affiliative bonds, H.I.J.O.S emphasizes the group’s identity as an organization based on (but not reduced to) biological kinship (http://www.hijos.org/). Just as the Madres consider themselves socio-political ‘mothers’ of all the disappeared, so too H.I.J.O.S. struggle to insure justice for all the disappeared by bringing criminals to trial: “Juicio y castigo” (Justice and Punishment) is their motto and their sights are clearly set on the repressors. Memory, for most of these young people who grew up without their parents is, on one level, a political project.
Like the Madres, H.I.J.O.S continue their fight against impunity and forgetting through the highly visible use of public spectacle, using their bodies to humiliate those in power. Like the Madres, H.I.J.O.S. meet at a predetermined time and place to carry out their protest en masse. They move in unison, yelling, singing, dancing, and holding hands to create a protective ring around the protestors even as they deliver their denunciation. Some of the visual features of their activism resemble the Madres’—the use of the long horizontal banner with their name on it [Figure 14, H.I.J.O.S. like, Madres, use of the long horizontal banner with their name on it. Photo courtesy of H.I.J.O.S.]
the large placard photographs of the disappeared. [Figure 15, The large placard photographs of the disappeared haunts the protest practice. Photo Mariano Tealdi]
Nonetheless, their performance in fact looks and feels very different. While H.I.J.O.S., like Abuelas and Madres, admit that their personal loss animates them, they act from a position of joy and hope. Instead of the ritualistic protest and mourning of the Madres, confined to the Plaza de Mayo, H.I.J.O.S. organize carnivalesque escraches or acts of public shaming. The word ‘escrache’ is etymologically related to scracè= expectorar, meaning roughly ‘to expose.’ While in fact Abuelas and Madres have been exposing the military since they began, the staging differed—the chose to focus their claims on the disappeared (and by extension accused the military) than the direct ‘outing’ of individuals and organizations. Because they entered the public arena more than a decade after the fall of the military, they can afford to be more confrontational in their use of techniques and public space. Setting off into the dark corners of Buenos Aires during the Dirty War would have proved suicidal. Abuelas and Madres, by necessity, had to stay in the most visible place in Argentina and emphasize the traditional (non-confrontational) nature of their demands—they presented themselves as harmless mothers looking for their children. Members of H.I.J.O.S., now in their 20s, enjoy the physical exertion that characterizes their brand of activism. They can directly challenge perpetrators and force Argentina’s criminal politics into the open. These range from little-known physicians who assisted in torture sessions to the C.I.A., to the infamous Alfredo Astiz, known as the ‘angel of death’ who infiltrated the Madres group and filled fourteen of them, to the U.S. run School of the Americas that trained torturers, to the infamous Campo Olimpo and Plan Condor. The escraches aim to heighten public awareness that these unpunished crimes, criminals, and criminal organizations continue to exist in the context of a supposed return to democracy. Current neo-liberal economic policies in Latin America, they argue, simply continue the economic policies of the dictatorship in more modern guise.
H.I.J.O.S. also promise to continue: Si no hay justicia hay escrache (if there’s no justice, there will be escraches). Two can play the waiting game. The aging Abuelas and Madres have spawned the next generation of activists,. H.I.J.O.S. also continue the use of photographs in several different ways—they hunt down recent photographs of their military targets to use in their escraches and in their publications. Military repressors, not surprisingly, are now the first to burn their own photographs as they struggle to change their look and reinvent identities. To paraphrase Barthes yet again: eliminate the photograph, eliminate the criminal/crime). H.I.J.O.S. follow their prey and sneak photographs of them when no recent ones are available. Some might argue that this is one example of ways in which H.I.J.O.S. inherit strategies used by the military as well as activist materials used by the Madres. H.I.J.O.S., after all, target the perpetrators, follow them to their homes, and make sure that they feel watched and unsafe no matter where they are. They orchestrate a public relations war on their enemies, just as the military tried to convince the general population that their victims were dangerous guerrillas. Still, their tactics serve to identify individuals responsible for gross crimes against humanity. The performative interruption, no matter how unwelcome, does not threaten their life. H.I.J.O.S., like Madres and Abuelas, claim institutional justice, not private vengeance.
Another use of photography is far more personal, related to the more individual and private dimension of trauma. While H.I.J.O.S., like Madres and Abuelas, do not highlight individual or personal loss and trauma, trauma defines them, not just as individuals haunted by personal loss and pain, but as a group shaped in response to atrocity. Some members of H.I.J.O.S. form collages and installations where they insert their own photograph next to their missing parent(s). These new ‘family photographs’ of course give a sense of physical proximity and intimacy that was denied them in reality.
As individuals, some children of the disappeared from Tucumán sat for a series of thirty-three portraits by Julio Pantoja, an important Argentine photographer who took these images as his own act of protest in the face of ongoing political impunity. Asked to represent themselves as they chose, these young people depicted their struggle with their history, and situate themselves in relation to their parents and to the violent ruptures created by their disappearance. Of the thirty-three photographs in the collection, twelve of the children posed with a photo of the disappeared parent. The centrality of the photographs, on one level, bespeaks a profound personal truth—these children only knew their parents from photographs. Many of them are now the same age as their
parents were when they disappeared. (Figures 16, 17, 18. These children of the disappeared only knew their parents from photographs. Many of them are now the same age as their parents when they were disappeared. Photo exhibit by Julio Pantoja, Los Hijos, Tucumán veinte años después)
These portraits illuminate the political hauntology I sensed at the escrache. In them, the young people hold photographs of the previous generation of young people. The faces in both photographs (Pantoja’s and the ones the children are holding) demand a double-take. The photographs of the disappeared, if anything, seem more hopeful than their heirs. Soon, the children—who will always be known as ‘children’ of the disappeared—will be older than their parents. The portraits, however, indicate that the children, both genetically and visibly, resist the tugs of surrogation. While many of the children idealize their missing mothers and fathers, they haven’t taken up their fight in any straightforward way—expect as the fight for justice and human rights. Rather, they assume their place in a line that signals rapture and continuity. The place of the missing member of the family is reserved, made visible, through the photograph. In four of these cases, the children choose the same photos used by the Madres in their demonstrations. The isolated head-shots have a recognizable history. In these photos, the parents reappear as ‘desaparecidos.’ By including these particular images in their own portraits, the children acknowledge not just the existence of their parents but the violent history of political struggle surrounding the images of the disappeared. Unlike the familial photographs chosen by the other eight children, these four are oversized, cropped, and mounted to be viewed in the public arena. Used formerly as weapons in a war of images, they (like the violent loss) prove impossible to domesticate. Like the Madres, the children struggle to re-possess the images and re-contextualize them, either by re-introducing them in the domestic space, or by holding them against their own bodies. They, like the Madres, have become the paradoxical living archive, the embodied home of the ‘remains.’ We see the past reiterated, not in the photographs as much as in the positioning of the children themselves. The children, like the Madres, represent themselves as the conduit of memory.
And, of interest here, H.I.J.O.S. at times uses the blown-up photo IDs of the disappeared in their rallies.
[figure 20, H.I.J.O.S. at times uses the blown-up photo IDs of the disappeared in their rallies. Photo by Mariano Tealdi]
I find the use of the same, recognizable photographs of the disappeared in the H.I.J.O.S. escraches interesting, especially considering that they appear in the demonstrations after the Madres have stopped (for the most part) carrying theirs. The Madres continue to wear the small ID photo, encased in a plastic pocket, around their necks. The large images on placards, however, belong to the past. The Madres’ goal now is less to give evidence as to the existence of the missing than to denounce the politics of impunity. “We know who the disappeared were,” the Madres said when they changed strategy in 1983. “Now let’s see who the disappearors are.”
H.I.J.O.S., on the other hand, never sought to give evidence in the same way. They entered the political arena long after the Madres had declared, “We know who the disappeared are.” They never needed to prove, as the Madres once did, that their loved ones were missing. Their use of the photographs reflect the power of the repertoire more than the archive, the point being to mark the performance continuities rather than positive identification. When H.I.J.O.S carry the photo I.D.s in their rallies, they index the continuity of a political travesty—the fact that the repressors have not been punished. Some gains have been made by H.I.J.O.S.—the medical doctor targeted by H.I.J.O.S. for his role in torture sessions lost his job. Astiz, facing extradition charges from several governments, cannot leave the country. At ‘home,’ the situation has become uncomfortable and his movement restricted. Because he has been the target of repeated escraches (the most notable one done in the courtroom itself), he simply cannot find a place to hide. Argentina has recently asked Pinochet to be extradited to answer charges of his role in Plan Condor. The hope for human rights groups is that various international justice systems will form their own hemispheric, and even global, network—based, ironically, on the model of the Plan Condor. Torturers and murderers would not be able to evade justice, either at home or abroad. But much remains to be done. And H.I.J.O.S. vows to keep up the escraches until justice has been served.
By carrying the photo IDs during their rallies, however, H.I.J.O.S. points to the continuity of a representational practice. They are ‘quoting’ the Madres, even as they acknowledge other influences, the carnavalesque images by Goya among others. They, like the Madres, take the archival photographs and doubly re-mobilize them: they signal both the archival use of the I.D., and the performative use associated with the Madres. The archival photos are again performed, but now in a more complicated manner that signals various artistic and representational practices as well as the clearly defined political ones. The photographs, I contend, serve as ‘place-holders’ in a sense, a way of securing the place of the disappeared in the genealogical chain. They assure that the disappeared are neither forgotten nor “surrogated.” No one else will take their place. This photograph (figure 19) layers the faces, allowing them all to be seen partially, to reinforce the idea that nothing disappears. H.I.J.O.S. continue the genetic line—and to some degree the political trajectory of defiance --calling attention to the violence of the breaks. Unlike surrogation in Roach’s genealogy of performance, that covers up the vacancy by substituting one figure/person for another [the King is dead, long live the King] the DNA of performance, like this photograph, demonstrates the continuity without surrogation. The specific link—though missing—can and needs to be identified for the genealogy, and the denunciation, to make sense.
Performance, then, works in the transmission of traumatic memory, drawing from and transforming a shared ‘archive’ and ‘repertoire’ of cultural images. These performance protests function as a ‘symptom’ of history (i.e., acting-out), part and parcel of the trauma. They also assert a critical distance to make a claim, affirming ties and connections while denouncing attacks on social contracts. And, like trauma, performance protest intrudes, unexpected and unwelcome, on the social body. Its efficacy depends on its ability to provoke recognition and reaction in the here and now rather than rely on ‘past’ recollection. It insists on physical presence—one can only participate by ‘being’ there. It’s only hope for survival, as Dawkins might put it, is that they catch-on; others will continue the practice.
And lastly, these trauma driven performance protests offer another cautionary note. With all the emphasis on collective action organized by survivors—Abuelas, Madres, and H.I.J.O.S.—these groups are the first to remind spectators not to forget their role in the drama. Most of us addressed or implicated by these forms of performance protest are not victims, survivors, or perpetrators—but that is not to say that we have no part to play in the global drama of human rights violations. The Dirty War, sponsored by the CIA and School of the Americas and organized through the workings of Plan Condor, was truly ‘hemispheric.” Thus, the DNA of performance, like current biological research, might expand, rather than limit, our sense of connectedness: we all share a great deal of genetic, cultural, political, and socio-economic materials. "You are Here" marks not only the performance space but also the collective environment of trauma that addresses and affects everyone. We are (all) here.
(Figure 21, “Usted Esta Aqui, You are Here, Courtesy of Grupo Arte Callejero)


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