Mimetics of History

By Thomas Asmuth

If nature in late capitalism is the spectacle and the commodities that are in circulation than mimesis of the spectacle is the natural starting point. 
-G.H. Hovagimyan, "Re-Staging, Re-Enactment, Remix and Mimetics"

The scene on the online player window is a pleasant and bright Summer afternoon. Dozens of American Flags wave gallantly to the right under steerage from a light breeze on the Washington DC mall. A young man reads at a small podium and microphone upon a stage. His unstyled medium length brown hair and crudely worn light blue Oxford shirt and jeans are ruffled by the wind and belie his eloquence and sophisticated message. The small crowd is filled with spectators in casual attire as well as those who seem to be in route to business meetings or church. Cameramen are occasionally caught in the video frame taking shots of the crowd and speaker. They all stand on the grass and listen while occasionally peppering the young man's message with applause:

"Most of us grew up thinking that the United States was a strong but humble nation, that involved itself in world affairs only reluctantly, that respected the integrity of other nations and other systems, and that engaged in wars only as a last resort. This was a nation with no large standing army, with no design for external conquest, that sought primarily the opportunity to develop its own resources and its own mode of living. If at some point we began to hear vague and disturbing things about what this country had done in Latin America, China, Spain and other places, we somehow remained confident about the basic integrity of this nation's foreign policy. The Cold War with all of its neat categories and black and white descriptions did much to assure us that what we had been taught to believe was true."1

The crowd continues to grow larger with pedestrians, exercise fanatics, and tourists. They are drawn in by his unassuming air and passion:

The President says that we are defending freedom in Vietnam. Whose freedom? Not the freedom of the Vietnamese. The first act of the first dictator, Diem, the United States installed in Vietnam, was to systematically begin the persecution of all political opposition, non-Commumist as well as Communist. The first American military supplies were not used to fight Communist insurgents; they were used to control, imprison or kill any who sought something better for Vietnam than the personal aggrandizement, political corruption and the profiteering of the Diem regime."2

As the speech continues, it becomes abundantly obvious that this speech written for another war from another era. Instinctually and observationally, the evidence in the quality of  image and audio, the participant-audience's clothing, and the brief glimpses of the technical equipment tell that this video was produced within this decade. Uncannily, the words are profoundly appropriate for the contemporary conflict with which the United States currently wrestles. The text begs for the an exercise in nomenclature replacement to supplant "Diem" with "Hussein" and "Communist" with "Islamic Fundamentalist".

This speech, "We Must Name the System", was authored by Paul Potter of the Students for a Democratic Society and was originally delivered on April 17, 1965 to 25000 Vietnam War protesters. This reenactment is part of a larger project from a group of political activists and artists at Brown University, the Port Huron Project led by Mark Tribe. Tribe has organized three of these reenactments to date, one originally delivered by Howard Zinn and the other by Coretta Scott King. The speeches are re-created on the original historic public sites encouraging the participation by those who might pass through the event. These open re-creations may seem superficially as ironic or wry demonstrations on the contemporary hegemony but, in fact lie within a field of historic re-creationism and reenactment as aesthetic practice. The Reenactment as Performance Art has gained a sense of presence and power beyond mimesis and simple satire. This momentum deserves inspection to suss out the cultural function of this historical mimesis.

When contemporary discussions turn toward history, the admonition 'those who don't remember are doomed to repeat it' looms. This warning is exasperated by the flattening of time through instantaneous global communication. The analysis of the externalization of memory through the network and how it fosters the death of history or how it simply unties the human mind from memory seems too shallow to explain the power of the reenactment praxis. Reenactment can be a meaningful point of re-authorship in a culture beset by the flattening of time and the politics of history.

The conservative function of the history discipline is to develop understanding of the lineage of events and ideas and their hegemonies. The narratives and contexts, at best, are interpretive; they are dissolved, shifted by time, and skewed by the politic of the archive in which they are inscribed. This is the second admonition: "history is written by the victor". Contemporary context cannot help but invade the present reading of an already interpretive impression and precludes an impartial record.

Reenactment participants often refer to the uncanny sensation of the "real and unreal" while re-creating.  The reenactor automatically engages a conceptual negotiation of a dual context. This duplicitous context is formed in the interpretation of the historic event and how its' meaning has changed over the course of time. Additionally, this engagement is genesis to a form of agency, where the recreated act creates a conduit to transaction. This path evolves from the re-creationist act in which a historic setting, time, and hegemony try to simultaneously displace the present and create a new conceptual site. The reenactment cannot entirely replace the present; a competition evolves between the two. Reenactment is thus sited at an interstices of past and present.

The surreality of this site arises from competition of the politics of history and present. The actor mimetically engages in the contingencies of the reproduced duration at the same time moments in the present pass. Rather than instilling a sense of detachment and independent observation, reenactments collapse the historical-present relationship imbuing agency in and of both times and the necessity to transact in both economies. Somatically, the reenactment functions as an autonomic historiography.

In the project Revolutionary Days, Portland based artist collective, Red76  doesn't simply reproduce the presence of revolutionary historic figures Ginsberg and Trotsky as much as they escorted the spirit into contemporary Philadelphia and also it's historic narrative.


"I myself chose to be Allen Ginsberg that day. I didn't look much different, except for the fact that I did a lot of chanting. So I suppose I acted a bit different. I bought a dove from a market off of South St. and released it in front of Independence Hall. My friend Adam was Leon Trotsky. He wore small wire framed glass and a burly red coat. Zefrey was Ian Mackaye from the band Fugzai, among others. Zefrey didn't look too much different than he normal does, though he kind of looks like Mackaye anyhow. We all broke in and out of character. Talked about our lives as Beat Hippy Avitars and Red Army commanders. We ate breakfast. Trotsky and Mackaye discussed the finer points of the early eighties Washington D.C. Hardcore scene. Did we stand out from the crowd? If so, why?"3


Leon Trotsky on the streets of Philaadelphia, PA circa 2007. The project illustrates that reenactment can dissolve the geographic link to site specificity in exchange for the performance space of the body. The body of the reenactor becomes the aforementioned interstices of past/present. For Kristine Stiles the site for performance is the performer; collapsing the separations between art object and author into a sign and signified of art-author "...whom viewers see as both the subject and object of the work...".4  Thus, reenactment is a subset of Performance Art where separations between subject (past) and object (present) become confused.

All reproductions do not function this way. Simulation, repetition, and reproduction can all occur without a meaningful negotiation of both temporal politics (Blackson, 2007)5. Recordings do reproduce aspects of the events but, in the separation of author from object, the simulacrum loses the authority that reenactment expresses. It is dubious to claim that a recording of the symphony replaces the performance or viewers presence. The aesthetic politics of documentation further complicate the historic through implicit aesthetic. Bernadette Sweeney has written about the inadequacies of the document:


"In this way of thinking, visual documentation, whether it is video or photography, brings with it an ideology and an aesthetic which prevent it from functioning simply as evidence. Every photo you see here was taken by a particular viewer, at a moment they chose, and framed and printed the way they thought best. Each photo and video therefore has its own aesthetic values, and its own purpose. They interfere, like static, with the perception of the performance itself... The visual becomes suspect: it is no longer evidential, but contentious." 6


The document occludes the event and reinforces a politics in aesthetic and narrative in the same manner historic narrative draws around events. Perhaps, one could surmise that if enough technological savvy were brought to bear a recording could simulate the experience to the senses but, the fact that the timeline can be manipulated at the whim of the audience such as TiVO, paused and rewound again and again, unhinges the duration of reenactment's site and presence of object/subject jumble. The document fails achieve the mimetic nature or site of reenactment.

The political frame that is drawn is powerful, influential, and contentious. In 1970, the United American Indians of New England (UAINE) declared Thanksgiving as a Day of Morning. That year, participation of Wampanoag leader Frank B. Wamsutta, was cut from the 350th commemoration program when it was discovered that he was going represent the perspectives of the Native Americans at the time of the first Thanksgiving. Like a photographic document, the contention created by the alternate narrative frame has resulted in a yearly protest and boycott of the Plymouth reenactment by Native American groups since 1970. Thanksgiving holds a sacred place in the origin myth of Plymouth and the nation and thus the hegemony has refused to allow participation in the officially recognized reenactment . Subversively, this marginalization of the protesters continues and highlights the history of marginalization of native Americans.

Reenactment as a impressively motive as well as threatening force can cut the other way as well; Blackson recounts the story of a Lewis and Clark reenactment that has been blocked many times by Native Americans:


"To honor the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition, a group of reenactors named Discovery Expedition, led by Peyton "Bud" Clark (the great-great-great-grandson of William Clark),  is retracing the historic journey. However, they have been stopped numerous times by Native American tribes. These tribes claim that the reenactment is disrespectful to the plight of Native Americans struggling to reclaim their land rights. The Lewis and Clark reenactors brought with them a Tomahawk Peace Pipe in hopes that the tribes might smoke it with the reenactors and call a truce from their protesting. The Native Americans refused.'8


Complicity in the reenactment of manifest destiny would reinforce a less than whole history (i.e the contentious document) surrounding the 'discovery' and subsequent colonization of the American continent.

Smithson's Site/Non-Site strategy reinforced the Spectacle and the culture of infinite reproduction. If the document is contentious, how are we to negotiate the fluvial culture of the network without simply engaging in reproductions of the contentious . G.H. Hovagimyan addresses this flattening with: "A recent bit of oral whit , a meme if you will has been making the round of the information class. People are saying, "There is no there, there." I would extend that to say, "There is no now, now."9

And yet he fails to consider time that reenactment performance demands. The site of aesthetic reenactment is the body or the site of the actor's embodiment but is equally dependent on Bergson's notion of Duration in that the reenactor must weave their way through the contests between Contemporary and History during the performance.

Realtime strategy, particularly medieval based, games such as Koei and The Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms have leveraged historic reenactment to build narrative into the platform. These two games focus on China's historic saga of Three Kingdoms, a highly romanticized but relatively short period, approximately 75 years, was a tumultuous epoch of war for the heirship to Emperor. Some estimates set the number of lives that were lost at 40 million.  These ramifications of these event have been influential on many cultures in Asia and spawned many Chinese heroes and mythic warriors.

This influence can be seen in how, Warcraft III has been used to recreate historic battles of the Three Kingdoms saga by a group of enthusiasts in China.10 The Warcraft platform is a highly romanticized medieval-esque fiction; version III of the game incorporated tools to sculpt the landscape, numbers of factions, the number and type of warriors in each faction, etc. The players inserted the names and characteristics of the heroes of the Three Kingdoms period onto the game heroes for the reenactment and sculpted historically accurate populations and geography. This intervention allowed for a synthesis of game tools and historical narrative displacing the game engine and folding in of historic factions, time spans, narratives, etc. into the synthetic world of the game. The players can reenact and engage in the duration of realtime decision making and strategy. It also allows the reenactors to adjust to the reinterpretations of the history as they change.

SCA Arab Intervention (2004). Eddo Stern. Digital photograph. 20"x15".

Insertion of the historiographer-artist into a context of a highly specific reenactment community can yield powerful political statements with a further layering. In "SCA Arab Intervention (2004)."11, Eddo Stern inserted himself into the Society of Creative Anachronisms (SCA); a gallimaufry of politics of past and present. In a field filled with a riot of individuals in medieval regalia and armor caught up in melee; tension is created from a lone individual standing in the foreground in a Shimagh - a traditional Arabic head scarf. He stands in stark contrast to the combatants who are easily identified as European warriors by the conical steel helmets and embattled tabards.12

One of the defining features of the SCA is the live contact engagement by the warrior class.  In this engagement, the weapons are couched by the negotiation of the present, trading steel for rattan and foam. Live contact necessitates actual armor to be fabricated, often, with period proper materials. A deep social pressure exists amongst members to apply "period" appropriate methods and materials in all aspects of society participation encouraging the members to achieve historically accurate clothing, food ingredients and preparation methods, etc despite the complications and "distractions" of the contemporary. Obtaining a high degree of authenticity is rewarded with societal sanctification creates a highly competitive and continuous re-reading of period histories by the members to earn these honors and privileges. When Stern yells in Arabic over a megaphone at the European war reenactment, he calls into question the inadequacies of these highly polished  historical readings/experiences. A re-reading of the history of and current conflicts between Europe and the Mid-East manifest immediately from his intervention.

The attempt to mimetically displace the politics of today with those called historic forces a reconsideration if not analytical site to form in the competition. It appears that even mythic or less than whole narratives can somehow engage in a better understanding of culture and the inescapable politics.


1.  Potter, Paul. "We Must Name the System." Transcript of Paul Potter Speech, Washington, D.C., April 15, 1971. Accessed September 2007.

2. ibid.

3. Gould, Sam. "Revolutionary Days." Accessed September 2007. http://www.red76.com/revolutionarydays.html

4. Stiles, Kristine . "Performance." Critical Terms for Art History, Second Edition. Ed. Robert S. Nelson and Richard Shiff. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003. 75 - 97.

5.Blackson, Robert. "Once More . . . With Feeling: Reenactment in Contemporary Art and Culture." Art Journal v. 66 no. 1 (Spring 2007):  28-40.

6. Sweeney,  Bernadette. "How is Performance Documented?" Visual Practies Across the University. Accessed September 2007. /visual-literacy-sweeney.pdf+%22how+is+performance+documented%22&hl=en& ct=clnk&cd=1&gl=us

7. Day, Leila. "Native Groups Mourn on Thanksgiving Day. IPS." November 21, 2001 CommonDreams.org Newscenter. Accessed November 2007. http://www.commondreams.org/headlines01/1121-03.htm

8. Blackson, Robert. "Once More . . . With Feeling: Reenactment in Contemporary Art and Culture." Art Journal v. 66 no. 1 (Spring 2007):  28-40.

9. Hovagimyan, G.H. "Re-Staging, Re-Enactment, Remix and Mimetics." http://post.thing.net/node/1474

10 . http://98.to/n/

11. http://www.eddostern.com/sca-arab.html

12. The society is decidedly Euro-centeric due to a strict abeyance to only study cultures that were involved with feudalism between 800 and 1200 CE a few upstarts follow Japanese personas because of the overlap.  

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