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When Performance Art Is an Anti-War Instrument, Part Two

Performance and war are intertwined, perhaps more closely than we would like. War is immanently performative, as is the conduct of war. The actions of the military and politicians who wage war are rooted in their desire to demonstrate power and influence the shape of the world.

Lindsey Mantoan writes about this in detail in War as Performance, exploring the theatricality and performativity of war as exemplified by the conflicts in Iraq. Mantoan shows how military operations rely on practices rooted in theatricality, both in combat operations and in the framing of war within the aggressor state. She recounts the American Ghost Army, which distracted and deceived rivals during World War II.

Natalie Alvarez in Immersions in Cultural Difference: Tourism, War, Performance describes mock Afghan villages that were built in California (as well as in Canada and Britain) to train soldiers for real military action. In that setting, full-scale plays rehearsing the war took place. The cruel irony is that the “actors” playing the Afghans were recruited from the Afghan diaspora: these people who had fled the war were asked to play out their usual “pattern of life” for American soldiers—some of the producers of this chaos.

But these books also show that by examining war and the culture of war through the lens of performance studies, one can better understand how to resist this culture. Judith Butler writes, “Visual and discursive fields are part of waging and recruiting support for war.” These fields are shaped by certain performative events: the sublimation of patriotism and fake propaganda. In Russia, where the authorities shy away from announcing a full-fledged mobilization because it threatens Russia’s existence, there have recently appeared mobile contract recruitment stations, next to which an inflatable soldier stands and calls citizens to die for the sake of the insane president.

Protest performance (as well as performative/visual art like street art) gives people the language to call a war, a war.

Just as the performative, rhetorical, and visual dimensions of war are drawn to manipulate the feelings and thoughts of the population to secure its support, so too can they be intercepted by citizens, academics, and artists to respond by establishing a mindset in which military solutions to conflict are impossible. Very often, people simply do not have the language to call things by their proper names; in Russia, a huge number of the population is dissolved in a slow death (which, Loren Berlant says, is when living conditions are barely suitable for survival) and has a very low quality of information consumption. Protest performance (as well as performative/visual art like street art) gives people the language to call a war, a war.

War can be transferred not only in space (from there to here) but also in time, from the past to the present. Jessica Nakamura writes about this in Transgenerational Remembrance: Performance and the Asia-Pacific War in Contemporary Japan. She describes how, through theatrical and performative acts, the ghosts of war victims return to Japan's present and how this helps both to heal and to preserve the memory of war crimes—both perpetrated against and by Japan. These processes help shape what the Japanese philosopher Takahashi Tetsuya calls “postwar responsibility” (sengo sekinin)—the responsibility of people born after the war or not guilty of direct warfare. In essence, this is people's responsibility to keep the peace.

Tetsuya talks about the performative actions taking place around Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, the official memorial for everyone who “died for Japan and Emperor.” This shrine is a point of multiple controversies; of the 2,466,532 people contained in the shrine's Book of Souls, more than 1,000 were convicted of war crimes. Therefore, in addition to official events, protests took place there, like Koizumi Meiro's Melodrama for Men #5: Voice of a Dead Hero, in which Koizumi dresses as a dead kamikaze pilot, who wanders around the city in search of his fiancé and then staggers back to the shrine.

Two women hugging.

Photos are of a recent anti-war performance protest in Vilnius, Lithuania by the Feminist Anti-War Resistance (FAR). Photo by Mikhail Ivanovskiy.

Continuing to explore how performance art today can invoke responsibility for those who are no longer there, Nakamura turns to Shimada Yoshiko's durational performance “Becoming a Statue of a Japanese Comfort Woman.” In this piece, the bronze-painted artist sits for long periods in public places with her mouth taped shut, resurrecting in the present the history of women who were sexually enslaved by Japanese army soldiers.

Reenactment in general plays one of the most important roles for protest performance. Rebecca Schneider writes about this in detail in her book Performing Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Reenactment. For example, she describes artist Allison Smith's project The Muster in which she organized large-scale reenactments in the aesthetics of the American Civil War but without military action and with protest slogans of the artistic and civil communities. Or Mark Tribe's Port Huron Project, in which the artist organized a two-year series of reenactments of protest speeches by the New Left from the Vietnam War.

The director Harun Farocki made Inextinguishable Fire in 1969 as a reaction to the testimonies of the victims of napalm during the Vietnam War. This film is a reenactment of how napalm is made with students, scientists, and engineers who are aware of what is going on but compromise or fall under pressure. Director Joshua Oppenheimer made two films about the genocide in Indonesia: The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence. As part of the filming, he asked the participants in these murders, already elderly men, to reenact how they massacred their victims.

Reenactment is not always a literal repetition. Sometimes it is a transference of affect, like Marina Abramović's Balkan Baroque or Wafaa Bilal's Domestic Tensions, in which the Iraqi artist sat in front of a paintball gun in a museum for a month and invited people to shoot it through a website (about 60,000 people did so). Or like Chris Burden's Shoot (1971), in which he asks an acquaintance to shoot himself in the arm in reaction to the killing of “guys his age” in Vietnam.

One of the most notable actions of the feminist anti-war resistance, Women in Black, is also a reenactment. It dates back to 1988, when Israeli women, protesting the crimes of the Israeli army and the occupation of Palestine, went out every Friday in black clothes and simply stood in the streets and squares. Women in Russia did the same in the 1990s to protest the war in Chechnya.

Such actions open up space, not only for protest but also for collective grief. The collection The Mourning for Diana shows how modern Western society lacks safe places to experience and live out collective grief. Using the example of public grieving for Princess Diana, the authors show how valuable it is for people to be able to be sad, to immerse themselves, and to weep in a public place, expressing their sincere grief. When there’s no place for that, it can sublimate into aggression, an increase in violence level, and society’s inability to collectively discuss the difficult and controversial past and present.

Collective grief is especially important in places of military conflict or in those countries that unleash such conflicts. FAR activists came out in black, including on May 9 (the Victory Day in Russia), when a militarist coven celebrating victory—this year also over the mythical “Ukrainian Nazism”—took place in Russia. Against the backdrop of this aggressive military joy, the “women in black” represented scenes of grief, thereby fracturing the totality of state power over the space.

Finally, performance art helps to heal the wounds of war—from drama therapy and forum theatre to street marches and site-specific actions. In Ukraine today, musicians are giving concerts in bomb shelters and on the front lines to remind others of peaceful life in the midst of the looming death. When somewhere in a public place a person is sick or hurting, our first instinct is to try to touch them—to give them contact, to physically support them on their feet.

The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas wrote about how it is through face-to-face interaction that human intersubjective experience is most radically shaped: “The Other becomes my neighbor precisely through the way the face summons me, begs for me, and in so doing recalls my responsibility, and calls me into question!” When you sit in a bunker for years, when you don't see anyone except a group of old Chekists just like you, when you communicate with your interlocutors through a five-meter table, then the Other's horror becomes virtual for you. Performance, through presence, interaction, touch, and affect, helps—on a bodily level—to constantly keep the value of human life in mind.

With all this in mind, I suggest that we consider how important performativity is in the construction of narratives of all kinds. These can be peaceful narratives as well as military ones. I see a lot of artists and theatre people in Russia today have a lot of confusion, like, “What can I do?” There's a proverb borrowed from Latin that states, “When the cannons talk, the muses are silent.” This means that in times of war, art and those who make it recede into the background. It seems to me that artists can no longer allow themselves such irresponsibility; we must understand how powerful a tool we have in our hands.

This is part two of a two-part essay. Check out part one here.

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