Reality Check, a series of essays initiated by Tanzquartier Wien’s theory curators, is currently dealing with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Walter Benjamin writes in his theses on the philosophy of history: “Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak messianic power to which the past has a claim” (1988: 54). Benjamin’s conception of “now-time” [Jetztzeit], as a paradigm of messianic time, is dialectically loaded with revolutionary potential drawn on remembering and reclaiming an oppressed or effaced past in the present. It involves tracing this potential in the radical re-articulation of the present as an indeterminable resource for collective resistance to —and an agonistic transformation of— ongoing conditions of injustice. A backward turning around is about rearranging history through defending a history of the victims and the defeated. It has to do with acknowledging how the temporal space of history resides in its non-actualized and missed possibilities. To redeem and re-present the suppressed past and its unrealized potential arising in ruins, it is necessary to put a brake on the runaway train of a history saturated with accumulating injustices and oppression (Thesis 17a).
How can the incommensurable afterlife of past injustice be addressed, shared and responded to, and how can it animate struggles for just futures? How might art practices evoke and bear witness to political suffering and loss without succumbing to the norms of figurative representation? What is the possible transformative potential of the aftermath? Taking my cue from Benjamin’s heretical dialectical refiguration of the messianic and the “weak messianic power to which the past has a claim”, I would like here to reflect on weak and tenuous possibilities for a non-monumental (en)vision(ing) of political loss. I am interested in art practices of a performative politics of mourning that might work to “brush history against the grain” and trouble the banality of the self-totalizing present and its unbearable conditions.
In the wake of intersecting regulatory operations of race, gender, class, ability status, and national citizenship, reclaiming the haunting temporality of bodies rendered disposable might become an occasion for mobilizing a critique of the present. Attending to the disavowed but persistent remainders and reminders of such regimes of the historical present defines an articulation of the present as haunted by the political conditions through which those spectral bodies-out-of-place make themselves present, and present to one another, despite and against those forces that have disregarded and disremembered them.
Resisting the monumentality of disremembered loss
Columbian artist Doris Salcedo’s monumental installation Palimpsesto, first exhibited in 2017 in Madrid’s Palacio de Cristal (a building marked by Spain’s colonial history), evokes and bears witness to the loss of people from North Africa or the Middle East who died in the Mediterranean over the past years while fleeing from their countries of origin and attempting to migrate to Europe. The names of 300 refugees are written with water on stone slabs through a hydraulic engineering system. The emanating water itself is forming the shape of the writing, as it is seeping up silently and slowly through the ground. The quiet and constant flow of the dispersing drops of water makes names to emerge while others fade and disappear.
In the wake of the repeated sinkings and drownings in the deadly migrant route of the Mediterranean Sea and at the borderscapes of a barricaded Europe, the watery traces of emerging and fading names body forth the tracing of dis-appearing anonymous bodies lost to a political violence that persists into the present. This uncanny modality of temporality/spatiality is figured in the title of the work: the notion “palimpsest” suggests a multilayered manuscript whereby the original text has been erased to make room for a new one while traces of the previous textual layer may still persist -albeit barely visible and legible. Conventional modes of presence are unsettled through an insistent working (i.e. disappearing, reappearing) of the undead remains.
The call for accountability for lives lost in the postcolonial Mediterranean and on the fringes of a ‘Europe’ persistently constituted by colonial and racial imaginaries entails addressing processes of bordering and tracing. By acknowledging and conjuring up the lost refugees’ haunting dis-appearance in the installation’s space and time, the work evokes histories of displacement and sovereign violence, but also of solidarity and resistance before the non-passable borders of present-day Europe. It puts the monumental to work in order to trace possibilities for resisting the monumentality of forced and disavowed loss. The effect of writing of names in water washing over the stone slabs gives rise to a non-monumental (or “counter-monumental”, in Judith Butler’s reading ) definition of memorial: horizontal, tenuous, provisional, malleable, suspended, overlooked.
It is through such historically contingent traces that new forms of responsiveness are brought about. “I wanted the earth to cry out these names”: the artist as a witness. Walking over those plates on the pavement of the piazza, standing and stepping on the names, visitors are drawn in a sensorial space of (mis)recognition. As their oblivious steps interrupt and disperse the flow of the watery traces, generating disorderly effects and affects, they become unwittingly engaged in an intermittent temporality of redistributing public space. Crossing and stepping onto and through the installation becomes an embodied reminder of a continuous, urgent appeal, which holds time open to a different coming-to-be: open to the possibility of having taken a different course.
De-authorizing the proper names of re-membering
Greek performance artist Leda Papaconstantinou has confronted questions of public memorialization in a work entitled “In the Name of (Eis to Onoma)” (1st Thessaloniki Biennale of Contemporary Art, Thessaloniki Center of Contemporary Art, 2007), which, combining installation and performance, addressed heterotopias of unclaimed memory in ways that reconﬁgured the precarious work of re-membering bodies, events, and biographies – in all their dismembered (extra)ordinariness. The videotaped actions, unfolding in the urban fabric of two cities (Thessaloniki and Athens) and in the foreign cemeteries of Thessaloniki, were projected on floating screens in the port of Thessaloniki, thus evoking contemporary cartographies of mobility, statelessness, deportation, and displacement at sea.
By using her body as a performative conduit of disremembered memory, and through symbolic acts of laying a wreath or placing votive offerings in the foreign cemeteries of Thessaloniki, but also in front of a Pakistani grocer’s store in the center of Athens, the artist acknowledged the forgotten dead of the city but also those experiencing a social death –the migrants, the undocumented workers, the unemployed. As she placed ritualistically personal belongings at the tombstones thus creating an effect of traces left behind by the previous users, the temporality of performance resisted rigid distinctions between ephemeral and enduring. Used clothes were lain out -empty but still bearing reminders of possible lives lived- evoking a sense of tactile intimacy that defied the protocols of identification, appropriation, and documentation. This responsive gesture of holding onto the remains -oscillating between the intimate and the public- marked a mnemonic site grounded in a paradoxical form of corporeality: the hovering non-present presence of the body. The votive installation, resonating with the complex tensions between anonymity and biography, evoked the gendered domain of care and intimacy, one that was no longer limited to the norms of familial and national belonging.
Such re-membering engaged with the ways in which memoro-politics is produced through, and predicated upon, a constant contestation regarding what matters as memorable, who owns memory, and who or what is dispossessed of the rights and rites of memorability. The artist performed in places where delimitations of memorability “take place” and are archived in the body of the polis: foreign cemeteries and immigrant neighborhoods, where the ordinariness of the memorialized public order is sustained and yet troubled by silent and silenced memories. The gesture of witnessing in the name of others (as in the title of the performance In the Name of), especially those anonymized and constituted as alien to the forms and norms of memorable national belonging, acknowledged and, at the same time, displaced the norms that authorize collective memory through the proper name (i.e., of the father and the fatherland).
Re-embodying political-aesthetic spaces of appearance
Summoning us to a redeeming of disrememberment, these poignant artworks confront the aporias of mourning, witnessing, and speaking for others. Evoking the impossibility of mourning and, at the same time, calling for response-able acknowledgement of uneven conditions of livability in the present, they attend to the monumental as a critique of the epistemic violence underlying the architectural, situational, scopic, and sensational regimes of commemoration, which are imbued with power histories of nationalism, phallogocentrism, and racial capitalism. As the unactualized and thwarted possibility that is not quite here and yet remains with us, Benjamin’s “weak messianic power to which the past has a claim” is inscribed in the spectral (im)palpability and (mis)identification of these “weak monuments.” As in Jacques Derrida’s perspective, the spectre always returns to reclaim and re-embody spaces of appearance. Spectral monumentality becomes a trope through which the previously unseen, invisible or overlooked can be acknowledged and articulated, although not in order to exemplify or (re-)present reality but to reflectively reconfigure the yet-to-be realized presence/absence of the elusive, the repressed and the foreclosed by means of destabilizing the very languages of re-presentation.
In both artworks, urban public space is transformed into a contested domain riddled of loss; a burial site imbued with historical injustice. It becomes susceptible to ethico-political ambiguities and anxieties pertaining to the fraught dialectics of representation and violence. Viewers, as a collective body, are quietly prompted to take part in an affective labor of summoning those unknown deaths as a way to contest routinized terms of ungrievability. They are immersed, if only momentarily, in spatial/corporeal gestures of witnessing, compassion, oblivion, and complicity -in all their aporetic layers of both impersonality and intimacy, detachment and relationality. In the context of such mediated intimate publics, “constituted by strangers who consume common texts and things” (Berlant 2008: viii), re-membering is about belated reinhabiting, reappropriating, and reassembling the traces and the debris of the disremembered past in the light of the present and its master narratives.
These art events function as occasions for an epistemology of haunting and its challenge to established matrices of visibility, representability, spectacularization, spectatorship, which sustain presence as appearance by effacing or assimilating difference. What formations of worldmaking might emerge from these events of political-aesthetic criticality and situated relationality? To what extent might these emergent poetic spaces for public response-ability -always already traversed by the possibility of misfire- call for a rethinking of the links between the aesthetic (as well as the anaesthetic) and the political amidst and against inequalities and injustices across time and space?
In activist performances of mourning and/as protest, disremembered pasts are enabled to haunt the present in such ways as to reassemble possibilities for other lives, for living otherwise. The ways in which AIDS activism in the 1980s, such as the Memorial Quilt and the Names Project, deployed mourning as a political sign for the interrelation of grievability and resistance forged not only collective recognition of homophobic/transphobic dispensability but also queer archives of camaraderie and testimony in the face of preclusions that regulate the space and time of the memorable (Crimp 2004, Cvetkovich 2003). Argentina’s Madres de Plaza de Mayo partakes in this layered genealogy of political enactments of mourning, whereby public grief emerges as a performative mode of non-normative, queered collective affectivity and protest in the aftermath of loss (Sosa 2014; Taylor 1997). The Women in Black activists (in Israel/Palestine, former Yugoslavia, and elsewhere), in their street actions of agonistic feminist mourning despite and against ethno-nationalist and heteronormative kinship assumptions, enact a social poetics of bodies emerging out of place and reconfiguring public space through the spectrality of appearing and disappearing, assembling and dissembling (in) the polis. The multinational activist movement Ni Una Menos (“not one [woman] less”), which spans several countries in Latin America, enacts opposition and responsiveness to injuries inflicted on gendered, class-laden, and racialized bodies in a feminist politics of mourning that calls forth a different livability (López 2020). Having emerged out of moments of political loss and grief, the activist movement Black Lives Matter conveys the deadly violability that Black people experience in ways so thoroughly banalized by ongoing conditions of white supremacy.
Struggles that seek to do justice to painful political loss ghosted inside the historical present entail enacting transformative modes of survival. Survival for non-white, migrant, economically exploited, female, LGBTQI*, and/or debilitated bodies speaks to a struggle to sustain oneself and one another despite and in the face of lethally normative terms of livability. In this sense, transnational activist mourning for normalized deaths reworks the present into the potential of its transformation by exposing the established coordinates of normative life that had rendered those lives “already dead”. Judith Butler has importantly argued for the future anterior temporality of grievability (2009). Through collective modalities of political grief and/as protest, those lives will have been (or would have been) sustainable. Butler allows us to think how the “aftermath” of loss becomes an occasion for reconfiguring the temporality of social and political life, as its habitual markers such as pastness, belatedness, and afterlife, are all called into question: “And so this past is not actually past in the sense of ‘over’, since it continues as an animating absence in the presence, one that makes itself known precisely in and through the survival of anachronism itself” (2003: 468).
 “Weak Monuments” is a Built Event project, presented in 2009 as a parallel event to the 2nd Thessaloniki Biennale, co-curated by Aristide Antonas, Alexis Dallas and Filippos Oraiopoulos.
- Benjamin, Walter. “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in “Illuminations: Essays and Reflections”, edited by Hannah Arendt, translated by Harry Zohn (New York: Harcourt, 1988).
- Berlant, Lauren. “The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture” (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008).
- Butler, Judith. “Afterword: After Loss, What Then?”. In David L. Eng and David Kazanjian (eds.), “Loss: The Politics of Mourning” (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).
- Butler, Judith. “Frames of War: When is Life Grievable?” (London: Verso, 2009).
- Butler, Judith. “Shadows of the Absent Body,” in “Topography of Loss: A Symposium on Doris Salcedo” (March 2-3, 2017) at the Harvard Art Museums. YouTube video, posted by Harvard Art Museum, March 2, 2017, youtube.com/watch?v=9o9_ZP2Z7aI&t=4093s
- Crimp, Douglas. “Melancholia and Moralism: Essays on AIDS and Queer Politics” (Boston, MA: MIT Press, 2004).
- Cvetkovich, Ann. “An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures” (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003).
- Derrida, Jacques. “Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International”, trans. Peggy Kamuf (New York: Routledge, 1994).
- López, Maria Pia. “Not One Less: Mourning, Disobedience and Desire” (Cambridge: Polity 2020).
- Sosa, Cecilia. “Queering Acts of Mourning in the Aftermath of Argentina’s Dictatorship: The Performances of Blood” (Suffolk, UK: Tamesis Books, 2014).
- Taylor, Diana. “Disappearing Acts: Spectacles of Gender and Nationalism in Argentina’s “Dirty War”” (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997).
Athena Athanasiou is Professor of Social Anthropology and Gender Theory at Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences (Athens, Greece). Among her publications are the books: “Agonistic Mourning: Political Dissidence and the Women in Black” (Edinburgh University Press, 2017); “Dispossession: The Performative in the Political (with Judith Butler, Polity Press, 2013)”; “Life at the Limit: Essays on Gender, Body and Biopolitics (Athens, 2007)”. She has been a fellow at the Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women, at Brown University, and at the Center for the Study of Social Difference, at Columbia University. She is a member of the editorial advisory board of the journals “Critical Times”, “Feminist Formations”, “Philosophy and Society”, “feministiqά”, “Journal of Modern Greek Studies”, and “Journal of Greek Media and Culture”.