The Case for Art – Legal Re-enactment In Christian Patterson’s Redheaded Peckerwood

Vincent Lavoie
Christian Patterson, Stuffed Toy Poodle, 2010.
Photo : © Christian Patterson, 2013, courtesy of MACK, Londres
In the judicial realm, re-enactment is a procedure in which actions allegedly performed during the execution of a crime are reproduced. It is an attempt to restage a crime in order to understand its causal sequence, demonstrate or refute a hypothesis, confirm eyewitness accounts, or demonstrate technical and material impossibilities. The re-enactment is illustrative, as it gives a tangible dimension to situations that either were not seen or were difficult to understand because of indeterminate perceptual conditions or due to cognitive processes troubled by emotion and violence. Sometimes it is meant to restore the original nature of an action altered by subsequent media coverage. Judicial re-enactment is a “theatre of justice,” to use François Niney’s term.1 1  - François Niney, L’épreuve du réel à l’écran: essai sur le principe de réalité documentaire (Brussels: De Boeck, 2002), 274. Acted out, or even simulated through computer-generated audiovisuals,2 2  - Several businesses specializing in the re-enactment of on-the-job and traffic accidents offer their services to victims bringing civil lawsuits. These high-cost computer-generated graphic reconstructions aim to impress the opposing parties with their strong demonstrative power. See, for example, it has high demonstrative value and can become a powerful means of persuasion in the courtroom. Judicial re-enactment is part of the lawyer’s and the prosecutor’s rhetorical arsenal, a means of convincing the jury through a symbolic replication of the crime. “This repetition of the crime, through language and emotion,” explains Antoine Garapon, “is experienced by those in attendance as an authentic ritual commemoration.”3 3  - Antoine Garapon, Bien juger: Essai sur le rituel judiciaire (Paris: Éditions Odile Jacob), 64. (Our translation; emphasis added.) I emphasize these words because they fully convey the paradox of legal re-enactments: to show, to display, to translate into gesture and images, to orchestrate a return to the crime, to introduce this chaos into a putatively beneficial public ceremony, while at the same time exposing a sadly factual treatment of things, weighing the weight of the real, evaluating the likelihood of events.

There have been some notable legal re-enactments, such as that of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, in which the desire to produce an intelligible picture of events was combined with the goal of establishing an official version. In this case, the scientific nature of the demonstration was less of a concern than was the desire to imprint a definite image of the events in people’s memory. This is the opinion of Chuck Marler and others who have examined the various reconstructions of the assassination. On May 24, 1964, on Dealey Plaza in Dallas, the Warren Commission lawyers organized a re-enactment of the events with the stated intention of shedding light on specific points: the precise moment when the bullets struck JFK and Texas governor John Connally, the position and speed of the limousine when the bullets struck, the bullets’ trajectory from the sixth floor of the schoolbook repository, and on-site validation of visual content in the amateur film produced by Abraham Zapruder. In truth, the re-enactment’s main objective was apparently to validate the theory that the assassination was the work of a single man, Lee Harvey Oswald thus playing a crucial role in legitimizing the “single bullet theory.”4 4 - Chuck Marler, “The JFK Assassination Reenactment: Questioning the Warren Commission’s Evidence,” in Assassination Science: Experts Speak Out on the Death of JFK, ed. James H. Fetzer (Peru, IL: Catfeet Press and Open Court, 1998), 249–262. It becomes demonstrably obvious that a legal re-enactment is open to question and cannot in itself constitute an irrefutable representation of the facts. The art collectives Ant Farm and T.R. Uthco eloquently showed as much early on, through a burlesque reconstruction of the assassination — The Eternal Frame (1975) — produced on the very site of the event.

Christian Patterson,
Rustless High Velocity, 2007.
Photo : © Christian Patterson, 2013, courtesy of MACK, Londres
Christian Patterson,
Shotgun Blast #2, 2010.
Photo: © Christian Patterson, 2013, courtesy of MACK, Londres

Performed or visual courtroom re-enactments reproducing the circumstances of a crime indubitably possess a subjective dimension that impacts their evidentiary value. This subjectivity inherent to the re-enactment procedure is not lost on contemporary artists who have exploited its fictionalizing potential since the 1960s. One could mention the works of Ed Ruscha (Royal Road Test, 1967) or of Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan (Evidence, 1977), in which the protocols of courtroom re-enactment serve as the basis for a conceptual art representation. These historical examples can serve to gauge our examination of Christian Patterson’s recent work Redheaded Peckerwood (2011), a project reconstructing the bloody itinerary of Charles Starkweather and Caril Anne Fugate (nineteen and fourteen years old, respectively), who, in 1958, committed eleven murders in Nebraska and Wyoming. Patterson’s work follows in a sequence of artistic projects that have drawn on material from these notorious events. One thinks of Terrence Malick’s film Badlands (1973) and Bruce Springsteen’s song “Nebraska” (1982), both referring to the two teenagers’ murderous rampage. Redheaded Peckerwood is made up of a motley collection of elements, including photographs produced by the artist, copies of archival documents related to the affair, and even objects that belonged to the killers or their victims, which he found during his research. These constitutive elements are akin to artefacts sealed and preserved in police archives and courts of law. They fall into various categories: pictures of sunsets, close-ups of clues and of objects considered as such, duplicates of contemporaneous photographs, a confession letter, a collage of pin-ups, sheets punctured by gunshots, ads, and so on. A common denominator brings this heterogeneous collection together, however: the constant highlighting of the tragedy, whether in metaphorical or literal form — two registers that in fact function together, the metaphorical power of the one being indexed on the literalness of the other, and vice versa.

On November 30, 1957, Starkweather stopped at a gas-station store in Lincoln to buy a stuffed blue poodle on credit for his girlfriend. The clerk, Robert Colvert, refused. Starkweather left the premises but returned after nightfall. After much hesitation, he held up the store and kidnapped Colvert, who was then killed with a 12-gauge shotgun on the outskirts of town. That was the first killing. Patterson found this stuffed animal at one of the crime scenes and integrated it into his work. The presence of this toy, an authentic and silent witness to the drama, in the exhibition — an element of the crime that no investigator had found until then — suffices to take Redheaded Peckerwood out of the realm of pure fiction. Like Truman Capote, who went to the small town of Holcome, Kansas, in 1959 to lead  his own investigation into the murder of the Clutter family for his book In Cold Blood (1966), and Orson Welles who, for his first television experience, went to the village of Lurs in southeast France in 1955 to produce a documentary on the Dominici affair,5 5 - On August 5, 1952, the bodies of three British tourists were discovered outside the village of Lurs. Gaston Dominici, patriarch of the town, was accused of the triple murder. He was condemned to death and then pardoned, and his family has constantly sought his exoneration. The case made waves and took many twists and turns. Welles’s documentary is symptomatic of the considerable attention that the case generated. Documentary filmmaker Christophe Cognet restored and edited Welles’s film following the American director’s guidelines. See Christophe Cognet, L’affaire Dominici par Orson Welles, 52 min, France (2000). Patterson follows in the footsteps of the killers, visits the scenes of each murder, rummages through city archives, collates press clippings. Acting as an investigator, he reconstructs the sequence of events, not to shed light on segments that remained obscure but to introduce an element of reality into his proposed fictionalization. The entire symbolic economy of Redheaded Peckerwood rests on the tension between “factuality” and fiction. The tension is particularly manifest in the artist book published in 2011,6 6 - Christian Patterson, Redheaded Peckerwood, with essays by Luc Sante and Karen Irvine (London: Mack, 2011). Redheaded Peckerwood, in which inserts of facsimiles and personal notes — even a postcard that Starkweather addressed to his parents — confer a realism that one usually finds in a “non-fiction novel,” a literary form in which factual information drawn from contemporary events is mingled with fictional content.

Christian Patterson,
Bottle Caps, 2008;
Charlie’s Bloody Ear, 2007;
House at Night, 2007;
Execution Wait (Recto), 2007.
Photo: © Christian Patterson, 2013 courtesy of MACK, Londres

In a book titled Lacan at the Scene (2009), British artist and theoretician Henry Bond focused on the imaginary dimension of crime photography, juxtaposing Lacanian theories of neurotic and psychotic perversion against current forensic techniques. Bond delivers a psychoanalytic interpretation to a set of unpublished crime-scene photographs from the 1950s — indeed, a body of work contemporaneous with Lacan’s writings. Like a technician collecting potential clues on the scene of the tragedy, he scours the images for details that betray a perverse modus operandi. For instance, in a photograph of a body found on a site still ravaged by Second World War bombings, he observes the presence in the foreground of soiled stiletto-heeled shoes, in which he sees signs of a dreadful scene: “Indeed, the scene almost appears as a theatre setting for a defiled version of a romantic seduction: removing the woman’s shoes near the entrance of the site, the seducer then slowly removes her clothes — they form a trail that suggests a mannered striptease, to be completed by the time she reaches an appropriately discarded mattress. It is as if, in the act of unbuckling her shoes, this woman might also have begun — unwittingly — to remove the powerful protective cloak of visual signifiers that had, up to that moment, ensured her safety.”7 7 - Henry Bond, Lacan at the Scene (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009), 70. In many respects, this psychoanalytic reading of the image, in which the author identifies elements in a perverse sequence, recalls the principles governing the courtroom re-enactments that I have described above. And what if Redheaded Peckerwood functioned like a crime scene that was up to the viewer to solve, or at least to reconstruct? Indeed, in Patterson’s work there is a mix of the factual, the conjectural, and the indeterminate quite typical of an unsolved situation. Patterson’s work is not a re-enactment of the eleven murders committed in 1958. Rather, the reconstruction operates from the perspective of its reception by the viewer, who is responsible for reconstructing the facts from the sampling of exhibits that are at times convincing, at others uncertain. Redheaded Peckerwood proceeds from a legal aesthetic, to the extent that attributes of the work call for a narrative retracing of events. Aesthetic reception thus being associated with investigative work and demonstration, viewers find themselves orchestrating, so to speak, a return to the crime characteristic of the work of re-enactment. That they thus become the grand masters of a rereading of events shows how important it is for Patterson to rehabilitate the viewer’s arbitrating function — a prerogative suppressed, needless to say, by relational and participatory aesthetics. While viewers of this work proceed with a kind of legal re-enactment, this re-enactment  of course exacerbates a rhetorical dimension that is anathema to criminology experts. Although there is truth in Redheaded Peckerwood (evinced by the stuffed toy found and woven into the plot of the work), there is above all verisimilitude — forms and conventions constitutive of belief in the veracity of facts. Patterson’s work seems to me to exemplify recent art practices whose operating character rests on the rogue use of protocols and procedures associated with forensics. Notions repudiated in critical discourse — truth, authenticity, judgment — are revisited here in the form of investigations of source events, the reconstruction of which is presented as a form of restoration. Through the free use of investigative procedures, Patterson exhumes vestiges of bygone tragedies and reactivates their memory. Redheaded Peckerwood is a relic of these painful events as much as an incitement to reactualize their fateful narratives.

[Translated from the French by Ron Ross]

Christian Patterson, Vincent Lavoie
This article also appears in the issue 79 - Re-enactment

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