Dossier | Continuity Error: Mediatized Re-Enactment in the Work of Kerry Tribe | esse arts + opinions

Dossier | Continuity Error: Mediatized Re-Enactment in the Work of Kerry Tribe

  • Kerry Tribe, There will be _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _, capture vidéo, 2012. Photo : permission de 1301PE, Los Angeles

Continuity Error: Mediatized Re-Enactment in the Work of Kerry Tribe
By Mariane Bourcheix-Laporte

(1) The Oxford Dictionary defines re-enactment as “the action or process of reproducing, recreating, or performing again.” (2) This definition establishes tension between, on the one hand, an original event, and on the other, a copy. But re-enactment as a contemporary art strategy cannot be said to serve only as a process of duplication. Re-enactment as an artistic endeavour does not simply replicate a past event: it re-actualizes it. By doing so, the re-enactment complicates the original event’s rapport with time and changes our perception of this event in the present. Reproduction is implicit; however, what the re-enactment induces is the production of an event not again, but anew. This process of replication is itself indicative of new meanings and relations because the re-enactment, as a projection of the past onto a point in the future, constitutes a displacement in time. The process of re-enacting initiates at once the de-construction of an event past and its re-construction at a later point in time. Making tangible the multi-linearity of time, the re-enactment transcends strict representation and thus becomes a framework for reconfiguration. Folding time on itself, the re-enactment becomes a productive framework through which we can experience multiple versions of the past. Playing with the fluidity of time, it is a strategy by which the very notion of accurate representation of the past can be questioned, and the fixity of events that have already occurred unhinged.

The work of Los Angeles-based artist Kerry Tribe underlines the potential for reconfiguration that emerges from the process of re-enactment, through an exploration of the mediating potential of time-based documentation. Working in live performance, sound, film installation, and video, Tribe examines the possibilities afforded by the material qualities of time-based recording media to re-enact a particular event. In doing so, the artist’s works seek to complicate our perception of a past event in the present. Tribe’s exploration connects the flexibility of material in indexical media documentation to the incongruous ways by which the human mind recollects. If indexical media, in its direct rapport with actual events, is normally thought of as having the capacity to document objectively, what we must contend with in Tribe’s work is the idea that indexical recording induces an inevitable process of mediation, which causes glitches in representation at the moment of playback. Tribe’s work is not concerned with producing accurate renderings of past events. Instead, the artist exploits the simultaneous loss and gain of information that occurs from the translation process inherent to documentary representation. Speaking to this effect, the artist notes: “A lot of my work [tries] to capitalize on the failures of representation, particularly the failures of representation in indexical and time-based media.” (3) I would argue that, more than examining the failures of representation, what Tribe’s work introduces is the idea that the accurate re-presentation of a past event is impossible due to the flawed mechanisms of both human cognition and documentation.

Tribe’s media installations investigate the shifting ground that memory procures for recollecting, reconstructing, and re-actualizing the past. In the catalogue of Tribe’s recent exhibition Speak Memory, presented at The Power Plant (Toronto) in the spring of 2012, Eli Horwatt writes: “Tribe has made a practice of inverting the essentializing character of the photographic image and its status as prosthetic memory machine, pointing to tricky intersections between mind and machine by interfacing the two in unexpected ways.” (4) Tribe’s work positions the partiality of indexical media documentation as analogous to the partiality of human memory, and examines how the process of mediatized re-enactment can transform present perceptions of the past. Instead of considering the partiality of mediatization as a deficiency of the medium, Tribe capitalizes on this infidel rendering to produce new readings of the past. The artist relies on the inherently flawed nature of memory, whether ethereal or material, to produce work that remodels the past by inflecting our perceptions of it in the present. Two of Tribes’s works, the film installation H.M. (2009) and the video There Will Be ________ (2012), provide insight into the different ways in which the artist aligns the flaws of human cognition with those of indexical media documentation in order to rework the past and construct new versions of it in the present. Exploiting two different techniques to re-enact events via technological media, these works respectively reveal the particular time-fold that occurs through re-enactment and its subsequent effects on our perception of the past.

H.M. is a film installation based on the story of “Patient H.M.,” (5) a man who lost the ability to retain memories after undergoing brain surgery. To alleviate his severe epilepsy, H.M. underwent a surgical procedure that removed his hippocampus — the part of the brain that we now know is responsible for making lasting memories. The surgery was successful but caused the patient to become amnesiac; while H.M. could recall events that occurred before the surgery, post-operation, his short-term recollection became limited to a 20-second time span. H.M.’s story provides fertile ground for Tribe to investigate the hazards of memory both conceptually and materially. Her eponymous installation consists of a double projection of a single loop of 16 mm film that re-enacts moments of H.M.’s life by combining restaged scenes of his past, narrated accounts of his surgery, historical photographs, and shots of significant locations from H.M.’s youth. Using the material of film as analogue to human short-term memory, Tribe’s installation creates a destabilizing viewing experience whereby viewers’ recollection abilities are tested through the delayed duplication of the projected film. Upon entering the installation, viewers come in contact with two adjacent film projectors through which passes a single loop of film. On the other side of the installation are two projections of the same film: the projected image on the right plays back the projected image on the left with a 20-second delay. This playback interval is caused by the space separating the two projectors, through which the film loop travels as it passes between the two projector reels. As a result, the 20-second time span that constitutes Patient H.M.’s short-term recall is mimicked by Tribe’s physical manipulation of the playback medium.

The film is constructed as a pseudo-documentary of H.M.’s life, and therefore can be said to constitute a partial re-enactment of it. This instance of re-production is doubled by the repetition mechanism that the installation sets in place. Repetition within the re-enactment creates a situation whereby the re-actualized original events re-actualize themselves anew in the process. Presented with multiple iterations of the same projected timeline, viewers face the limitations of their own mnemonic capacities. Since viewers come into contact with the displayed projection apparatus before they even see the projections, they know that what they are presented with are two projections of the same film, albeit different moments of it. Yet the destabilizing effect remains: because many scenes seem to appear on the right channel for the first time, viewers may fail to remember the sequencing of the images, and new connections between the two projected channels are created. A back and forth in time operates between the left and the right projection channels, which complicates the narrative that unfolds in the film itself. Already re-creating a new version of H.M.’s story, the film re-creates itself as it is being screened. The viewing experience that Tribe has created superimposes the past and the future of the film’s timeline; the two channels become interchangeable and establish new relations between the elements that compose the film. Tribe opens the possibility for multiple narratives and concurrent readings of the same original story to emerge as she exploits the mechanics of film projection to trigger the re-enactment of the “original” re-enactment. Using the mechanics of both human cognition and film projection, Tribe successfully unhinges the fixity of the past as it is in the process of being re-presented.

There Will be ________ relies not on the physical mechanics of indexical media to reconfigure past events, but rather on the internal set of relations that the history of film itself has fostered. The 30-minute HD video presents a set of sequences, each of which proposes a possible narrative for the unresolved murder(s) and/or suicide(s) of Edward Doheny Jr. and Hugh Plunkett at Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills in 1929. Playing with the uncertainty surrounding the original events themselves, Tribe’s video re-enacts five suites of events that may have lead the oil tycoon and his assistant to their deaths. In the process, the artist references the history of the mansion itself, which leads her to incorporate fragments of collective memory, forged over the years by the cinema industry, into the work. In her re-staging of the possible events leading to the men’s deaths, Tribe incorporates dialogue and shots from films that were made in the Greystone Mansion, which became a prime Hollywood filming location some years after the tragedy occurred. There Will Be ________’s dialogue is constructed solely of appropriated lines from movies that were shot on location, and Tribe films the mansion’s interior in a manner that re-stages the sets of a number of scenes of popular Hollywood films. (6) The re-enactment here is therefore doubled since the video re-constitutes speculative versions of the deadly events of 1929, but also revisits the cinematic history that took place at the mansion.

Multiple moments in Greystone Mansion’s past are overlaid in Tribe’s re-actualization of events that took place within its walls. There Will Be________ revisits not only Doheny’s and Plunkett’s deaths but also lines that were spoken in the mansion and shots that were captured of it. Tribe’s blending of multiple instances of the past creates an impression of déjà vu. This impression is established both through the video’s internal structure, which showcases multiple iterations of the same events, and through references to fictitious collective memory constructed by instances of cinematic representation. Tribe’s video therefore skews viewers’ perceptions of time as memories creep up on their present viewing experience. The internal logic of Tribe’s video distorts the linear unfolding of time; past perceptions superimpose themselves on the present so as to re-produce the past. Events are enacted not again, but anew, as they become entangled in a set of new relations and meanings. By presenting no fixed conclusions to the re-staged murder(s)/suicide(s) and, by the same token, re-enacting events from the repertoire of popular cinema, Tribe creates an open circuit of associations, suggesting that the actual past can only but be elided as we attempt to represent it.

In Tribe’s mediatized re-enactments, we lose sense of the linear unfolding of time, of the constant movement of the present towards the future, which creates in its wake an ever-growing chronology of the past. Tribe’s work engenders a perception of time that is not “linear and fixed, but liquid, malleable,” to quote a line from H.M. Combining the “flaws” of both human memory and time-based documentation, Tribe’s re-enactments produce new versions of the past more than they replicate events. We could say that the artist’s mediatized re-enactments are akin to a möbius loop: (7) they inflect a twist in the structure of past-tense re-presentation, making it become autopoietic.

NOTES
(1) I use the term “mediatized” in reference to Philip Auslander’s analysis of mediatized performance — performance mediated through or integrating technological media — in Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture (New York: Routledge, 1999). The performative character of Tribe’s video and film works renders them akin to mediatized performance as understood by Auslander.
(2) Oxford English Dictionary Online, s.v. “Re-enactment,” accessed March 28, 2013, www.oed.com.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/view/Entry/250343?redirectedFrom=re-enactme....
(3) Kerry Tribe, “Image and Amnesia.” Music and the Brain Symposium at Stanford University, Stanford, California, March 5, 2011, accessed March 28, 2013, http://vimeo.com/21762753.
(4) Eli Horwatt, “Speak, Memomy, Cinema,” in Kerry Tribe: Speak Memory, ed. Melanie O’Brian (Toronto: The Power Plant, 2012), 42 – 3.
(5) Henry Gustav Molaison (1926–2008), better know as “Patient H.M.,” became amnesic as an unintended side effect of the brain surgery he underwent in 1953 to cure his severe epilepsy. As a result, he became an important case study in the field of neuropsychology (he was studied for over fifty years), which enabled breakthroughs in neuroscientific research into human memory.
(6) Among them: Eraserhead (1977), Indecent Proposal (1993), The Big Lebowski (1998), and There Will Be Blood (2007).
(7) Not coincidentally, one of Tribe’s film installations, Parnassius Mnemosyne (2010), utilizes the möbius loop as a formal device to loop a 40-second strip of 16 mm film. As a result, the two sides of the film are alternately projected and the image flipped.

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