Truth is what we can make from what we missed.
––Peggy Phelan, Mourning Sex: Performing Public Memories[tome_reference id=”2094″ biblio-id=”2092″][/tome_reference]
A is for arrivals. I arrive in Santiago, Chile, one of eight people invited to bear witness to Return Atacama, a CONSTELACIONES performance. My witnessing begins in medias res: conceived as a transnational and durational project, Return Atacama has already begun in Winnipeg (MB) before I arrive on the scene. I become part of the project’s processual economy of labor. As return journeys go, this is artist Monica Mercedes Martinez’s return to her home country, her second time back since her family came to Canada in 1974 as exiles. For the rest of us, it is performance art: a ritualistic journey in solidarity, an affective re-turn to personal and public memories of distant and proximate sites. I’m trying to figure out what my role as invited witness entails. There is no script for it; I gradually become aware that I am a small part of but also stand apart from CONSTELACIONES.
B is for bones and bodies. Return Atacama dramatizes trauma memory as it is evoked by Martinez’s sculptural figures, abstract forms embodying the tension between disappearance and trace, resuscitating the bones of the desaparecidos. Their material hybridity—red terracotta and white porcelain—and textured surfaces are inscribed by her personal and collective memories that speak to her “mestizo identity.”[tome_reference id=”2099″ biblio-id=”2097″][/tome_reference] As we travel through the Atacama Desert, tracing the route of Pinochet’s Caravan of Death––our destination Calama––they also begin to carry our DNAs; they acquire the affective intensities of the entire group as the durational temporality of the project unravels. Their jagged edges and cracked surfaces, tangible yet spectral, speak to the incommensurability of the past, unsettle the normative view of history as a temporal continuity. Manipulated by heat in the sandblaster, they bear the “impressions of textiles left in the flesh of ancient Incan Mummies” but also “the imprint of fabric on the bodies discovered in the mass graves of the Pinochet regime.” [tome_reference id=”2103″ biblio-id=”2101″][/tome_reference] And they’re fragile; some of them have broken on their own journey from Winnipeg to Calama. Their brittleness mirrors the dismembered bodies of the Calama men, resonates with the incompleteness, yet persistent burden, of memory.
“In the archive, flesh is given to be that which slips away. Flesh can house no memory of bone. Only bone speaks memory of flesh. Flesh is blindspot.” [tome_reference id=”2107″ biblio-id=”2105″][/tome_reference]
C is for the women of Calama who returned to the desert, time and again, with shovels. Theirs was a repeated journey of mourning, looking for the buried-away bones of their fathers, sons, brothers. CONSTELACIONES is tracking the footsteps of these women but don’t carry shovels. Their gear consists of recording devices and performance props, notably the few hundred sculptural pieces created by Martinez. During the performance––half an hour’s drive from Calama––these sculpture-bones are tenderly carried and placed on the ground, forming a loose pyramid-like structure. When we depart, they are left behind as a memory cache, yet another layer added to the Atacama archive. I don’t want to leave them there, on the periphery of public memory, yet I also think they belong in the desert. I have an urge to stay, keep vigil.
The aesthetic and dramatic valence of the Greek classical chorus varies greatly from dramatist to dramatist, but in all of them it is assigned a participatory role: it is part of the action on the stage; it mediates between the actors and the spectators. It functions, according to Diana Taylor, as “official witness . . . caught up in the looking and, willingly or unwillingly, assum[ing] the duty to pass on the insight.” The witness-as-chorus is marked by a similar ethos: “neither the perpetrator nor the victim of events, the witness is part of the conflict and has a responsibility in reporting and remembering of event.” [tome_reference id=”2111″ biblio-id=”2109″][/tome_reference]
C is also for collaboration. CONSTELACIONES, explains their website, “embodies collective healing through kinship and vulnerability”; it “engage[s] in a process-based trans-hemispheric collaboration” [tome_reference id=”2115″ biblio-id=”2113″][/tome_reference]. I look for some room in this collaboration statement for a witness like me; there isn’t much. Since I am not an intimate—two of the performers are accompanied by their partners who are considerably more integrated into the entire project than the other witnesses are—my role and agency as witness are circumscribed by visible and invisible boundary lines. There are times when I feel like an embedded journalist, inside the action but controlled by impalpable strings; it’s hard to negotiate the dos and don’ts of an embedded witness. Other times, I feel I am part of a chorus—a chorus of witnesses—choreographed as a mediating and distancing device.
D is for durational witnessing. I’m participating in Return Atacama’s durationality, its “practical aesthetics,” but this does not mean that I also become part of its “aesthetic continuum.”[tome_reference id=”2119″ biblio-id=”2117″][/tome_reference] If durationality is intended to challenge how we perceive and relate to cultural production, stretch the limits of our attention span, and realign our relationship with temporality, then durational witnessing––as I experience it––is materialized within a field of action that must also realign itself with spatiality. It must annul, at the very least suspend, the logic that keeps witnesses at bay. The interplay between distance and proximity that characterizes the space inhabited by CONSTELACIONES’s invited witnesses is rich with ambiguity. Are we here only because the performance needs an audience and audiences are hard to come by in the middle of a desert? What constitutes the action expected from a witness beyond mere spectatorship? Where and how is this action to take place? I long for a redistribution of space. As we leave the Pacific coastline behind to go deeper into the expanse of the Atacama, I feel the need to abdicate my role of witness-as-viewer, to abolish my exteriority as spectator. I reminisce about La Pocha Nostra’s urban intervention at Montreal’s 2014 Encuentro where there was no borderline between the performers and the spectators; many spectators, including myself, were drawn into the action. The result was a spectacle morphed into a “place where the passive audience of spectators . . . [is] transformed into its opposite: the active body of a community enacting its living principle.” [tome_reference id=”2123″ biblio-id=”2121″][/tome_reference] Still, I remain tethered to the law of hospitality—the witness-as-guest.
Aware that “the audience is viewed, just as it views.” [tome_reference id=”2127″ biblio-id=”2125″][/tome_reference] I’m curious how CONSTELACIONES perceives us.
So, D is also for the dissonance that emerges as I practice witnessing as an onlooker: absorbing the tensions among some group members; observing their irreducible differences; considering where and how I fit on this journey as an eye- and body-witness; whether or not to share my views about what transpires. I often experience discomfort in my role as bystander. Still, I’m not quite sure why I want to claim greater proximity to the process. There is something about the outsided-ness of a witness that has to be preserved. I may crave greater proximity but I’m not eager to give up the distance between myself and CONSTELACIONES either. It affords me a critical perspective that I would otherwise lose. After all, I agree with Rancière: “We do not have to transform spectators into actors . . . Every spectator is already an actor in her story.” [tome_reference id=”2131″ biblio-id=”2129″][/tome_reference]
A reminder to myself that the outside is liquid space, that, as Maurice Blanchot says, it is not necessarily defined by the difference between “inside-outside.” [tome_reference id=”2135″ biblio-id=”2133″][/tome_reference]
E is for performing empathy. CONSTELACIONES exudes empathy. This is not surprising; the artistic process of performance art often generates and is generated by community bonding that derives from and produces empathy. As an onlooker bearing witness I cannot help but notice that the body language of CONSTELACIONES speaks of bonds developed through collaboration and friendship. At the eventual performance empathy is choreographed in a ritualized fashion—the performers’ bodies rarely touch, but are marked by the affective labor of carrying the sculptures-bones; while we’re on the road, however, their bodies project a kinesthetic and emotive image that discloses—at least to this onlooker’s gaze—an empathic asymmetry in the collective. At the same time that their manifestations of kinship reify the distance between performers and witnesses, they are directed primarily toward Martinez’s body. Gestures such as arms wrapped around her shoulders when we walk away from the Pacific shoreline where she has deposited one of her cross-shaped sculptures render Martinez as a subject of trauma par excellence. This body language affirms—honors—the fact that she is the only member of the collective who has intimate ties with Chile and its history, but also exhibits an affected impression of empathy precisely because her body doesn’t appear (to me) to project vulnerability; it radiates a quiet strength, humbleness and respect, resolve and release. I wonder whether her body is double-cast: cast as the other—the native informant—the conduit that mediates our passage into the local history of trauma, but also othered in the process as a consequence of the Brechtian notion of “crude empathy,” what Jill Bennett defines as “a feeling for another based on the assimilation of the other’s experience to the self.” [tome_reference id=”2139″ biblio-id=”2137″][/tome_reference]
“[A]t the heart of empathy there exists an important, but often overlooked, discordance between an intention to enact it and the actuality of performing it.” [tome_reference id=”2143″ biblio-id=”2141″][/tome_reference]
G is for the witness as guest. If I am invited as a guest, what are the rules of hospitality? The “guest, even when he [sic] is well received, is first of all a foreigner . . . must remain a foreigner. Hospitality is due . . . but remains conditional.” [tome_reference id=”2147″ biblio-id=”2145″] [/tome_reference]I begin to intuit the unspoken conditions: I must respect the distance of the spatial and temporal intervals that stand between me as a witness and the performance group—no access to the discussions or rehearsals that take place behind the scenes. This impassable space operates as a screen against which some of the processual aspects of Return Atacama unfold. It veils some action, creates anticipation, raises questions. It invites a welcome re-consideration of the role of the witness/spectator—the witness at once as insider and outsider, involved yet confined—but also regulates the act of bearing witness.
I is for incomplete witnessing, witnessing as an always-already liminal act. Testimony is invariably marked by traces of the untestifiable, of what the witness fails to observe or remains oblivious to. I may have known this all along, but I begin to develop a proprioceptive sense of this the day we reach Chañaral, a small town––both picturesque and dilapidated––right where the desert meets the ocean. Our first stop is the beach. We spread out in all directions—to stretch legs, pee, take in the view, contemplate. I linger around Lex Taylor, the group’s official photographer, who’s testing the drone that will record the performance. As the drone takes flight, an inanimate witness hovering above us, unbidden memories flood my consciousness.
This is my story, incomplete like my witnessing. But, then, neither of them could be complete. “The value of testimony,” Giorgio Agamben reminds us, “lies essentially in what it lacks; at its core it contains something that cannot be borne witness to.” Like the men and women murdered by the Pinochet regime, those who have been utterly consumed by death “have no ‘story’.” Agamben writes: “Whoever assumes the charge of bearing witness in their name knows that he or she must bear witness in the name of impossibility.” [tome_reference id=”2151″ biblio-id=”2149″][/tome_reference]
It’s April 21st, 1967, a Friday. (I want to say it’s dusk. It couldn’t have been, yet every time I re-inhabit this memory, it’s always twilight.) Downtown Thessaloniki. Girls in school uniforms swarm the school gate. They have been dismissed unusually early today, but their original excitement soon turns to apprehension when they see the principal, ashen-faced, watching them storm out of the gym without shouting even a single word at them to be quiet. It’s when I approach the iron gate and see soldiers, guns at the ready, that I freeze. Move, move, they shout, straight home. I move only because of the force of the pressing bodies behind me. I turn my head toward the direction of my friend’s voice calling my name, but the tip of a fixed bayonet on my chest stops me cold. The young soldier doesn’t say anything; he just stares at me. The few people I encounter on my way home are in a hurry; shopkeepers are closing down their stores; a man stops to ask me if I know what’s happening and urges me to rush home; military airplanes are flying low, their deafening sound as violent a sensation as the bayonet I still feel touching my chest. I make it home just a few moments before the first curfew is in effect.
That long moment marks for me the beginning of the Greek junta––seven years of terror. Curfews, arrests, disappearances, exile, phones tapped, torture, rape, killings. But also demonstrations, a student revolution, different forms of resistance, big and small, like not attending a military parade and thus risking expulsion from school, or buying a left-wing newspaper from a particular kiosk after a pre-arranged greeting, surreptitiously folding it inside another, right-wing, paper—my first clandestine act. By the time I became a university student I learned the special vocabulary of the generals’ torture methods: falanga, litarisma, aeroplano, balloni. I did not join any of the anti-resistance groups; my father’s own resistance as a union leader had already affected our family, but I never missed a demonstration. One of the slogans was “Allende, Allende.” We demonstrated not only against the Greek generals but also for Chile. Being in Chile, then, tracking the path of the Caravan of Death, is a kind of return journey for me, too.
J is for the drone as jarring witness. It has landed. Test mission completed, Lex is excited. Surely it will afford a panoramic view of the location, and eventually create an archive of the performance, but watching closely, this surveillance technology fills me with anxiety. I think of the ethics of gazing and being gazed upon, the various permutations of this double act, Pinochet’s death squad helicopters. The drone may be a sovereign surveyor, but I doubt that what it captures offers a complete picture of all that’s happening on the ground. It can produce affect, but it cannot capture it. The question of distance again, incompleteness.
I’m restless when I retire to my room. I flip through my notebook, neither reading my jottings nor taking any notes. None of the books I have been reading—books about the Pinochet regime, the Arpillera movement in Chile, performance as activism and resistance—can hold my attention. I think of the drone, Pinochet’s helicopters, the Greek generals’ panoptic eye, rogue states, my late father, military police, tortured bodies, the transnational links of regimes and resistance, my experience of personal traumas and collective traumas, the latter by proxy. Trauma—such a loaded word. Unquantifiable. I think about my occasional discomfort with the culture of trauma, its mediatization and commercialization. I’m wondering whether I should share any of this with the group, or at least with Monica; wondering whether any of my co-travellers—performers and witnesses alike—feel overwhelmed by all the unseen, even unthought, things that resonate around us, inside us, in between the spaces we inhabit. Unable to sleep, I get out of bed and try to clean up my shoes that are full of sand. I become absorbed in the strange behavior of sand grains. Granular and solid yet they behave like liquid, having permeated the entire interior surface of the shoes. They claim their space, like the memories pestering me. I give up, unpack my spare pair of shoes for tomorrow, and climb back to bed. I google “sand” and begin to read the preview version of Sand: The Never Ending Story. A temporary antidote to the incompleteness of everything.
L is for labor and its performative re-enactment. During the approximately three-hour long performance, the CONSTELACIONES members walk back and forth, back and forth, between the boxes of sculptures and the witnesses/spectators, a distance of about 100 meters. It’s hard work. The desert ground is uneven; the sun’s blaze relentless; the desert wind blows dust. Their movement is an act of laborious repetition without copying. Female labor, affective labor, ceremony. As I watch the slow movement of their figures a different constellation of images and texts merges with them: the(ir) work of mourning [tome_reference id=”2155″ biblio-id=”2153″][/tome_reference] becoming a mourning walk [tome_reference id=”2159″ biblio-id=”2157″][/tome_reference] becoming mourning clinging to loss only to be consumed by itself. [tome_reference id=”2163″ biblio-id=”2161″][/tome_reference] Labor that stitches together no singular manifest body or meaning, that withdraws from the regime of representation at the same time that its iterability enacts the referents—the remains—already buried in the desert.
Carlos Álvarez Acuña; Mario Argüelles Toro; Carlos Berger Guralnik; Haroldo Cabrera Abarzua; Carlos Alfredo Escobedo Caris; Daniel Garrido Muñoz; Luis Alberto Hernández Neira; Hernán Elizardo Moreno Villarroel; Luis Alfonso Moreno Villarroel; David Miranda Luna; Rafael Enrique Pineda Ibacache; Carlos Alfonso Piñero Lucero; Fernando Roberto Ramirez Sanchez; Sergio Moisés Ramirez Espinoza; Alejandro Rodriguez Rodriguez; José Gregorio Saavedra Gonzalez; Domingo Mamani Lopez; Jeronimo Carpanchi Choque; Bernardino Cayo Cayo; Luis Alberto Gahona Ochoa; Manuel Hidalgo Rivas; José Rolando Hoyos Salazar; Rosario Aguid Muñoz Castillo; Milton Alfredo Muñoz Muñoz; Victor Alfredo Ortega Cuevas; Roberto Segundo Rojas Alcayaga; Jorge Rubén Yueng Rojas.
M is for the men of Calama. During our trip we talk about the women of Calama but not of the men whose bodies they searched for. I’m troubled by this unspoken consensus. A selective and gendered approach to memory. The 26 men recede, yet again, into the archive of history. My search for them—their lives—reveals relatively little. It is their women that steal the show, their search for their men’s crashed bones that captivate the political imagination. Their survival as ghosts appears to be essential to the re-enactment of the trauma of the living.
O is for being on the road. Envisioning Return Atacama as a site-specific performance that includes the journey toward that site grants this project a particular aesthetic, cultural, political and ethical valence. I’m thrilled and honored to have been asked to accompany CONSTELACIONES. Our five-day road experience is rich and diverse: we talk, listen, observe, withdraw into ourselves or read, take notes, doze off, get irritated, laugh, debate when to play tourists or stop. It’s all part of the process of being a community of fellow travelers (the embedded witness). Together and apart, we instantiate Foucault’s discursive unity. It is while we’re on the road that the spatial and performative boundary lines between CONSTELACIONES and the witnesses collapse once in a while. Not the result of an orchestrated plan, it involves a smooth transition. On Chañaral’s long beach, I happen to walk along with Monica who’s carrying one of her sculptural forms; she offers it to me without saying anything, and I hold it, sensing its frailty and strength. Walking side by side, we reach the shore and I give it back to her so that she can release it to the sea. No longer just an onlooker; I feel “the weight of things and . . . [my] own place in them.” [tome_reference id=”2167″ biblio-id=”2165″][/tome_reference]
An “event is always in excess of the subject that witnesses it.” [tome_reference id=”2171″ biblio-id=”2169″][/tome_reference]
P is for performance day. On that day, we witnesses don’t travel together with CONSTELACIONES. As one does when going to the theatre, we arrive at an appointed time, but the performance is already happening. On time yet late. There is a moment of uncertainty—have we missed the opening act? But we’re assured by the witnesses/partners who have accompanied CONSTELACIONES that this isn’t exactly the case. The performance doesn’t have a formal beginning; it unfurls within its durational continuum. I have, again, arrived belatedly, a spectator of an always-already event. If the always-already resists the kind of anteriority conventionally assigned to presence, if it defers origins, rendering them in the process both impossible and possible, then my act of bearing witness is inflected by a similar im/possibility. I must witness something that is simultaneously there and not there. Belatedness is a precondition of the act of bearing witness.
R is for Monica’s red lipstick at the performance. I find it jarring. It adds an element of theatricality that I am not prepared for. Though it’s noticeable only when she comes close enough to the line of spectators, every time she re-enters my line of vision, it is her red lips that hold my attention. What are its semiotics: is it meant to visualize her passage from sculptor to performer? Assert her cultural claim to this place? Evoke the blood spilled in the desert?
R is also for CONSTELACIONES’s performance as a rite of return: the right to return.
S is for space—Atacama’s stunning landscape but also the challenging terrain I traverse as an invited witness, the space allocated to the witnesses at the performance. There are no bleachers of course. Just the stony ground of the desert. We settle in as best as we can behind the already established boundary line—knapsacks, shoes, blankets, cushions, water bottles, binoculars—the expanse of the desert in front of us a limitless stage. The performers, clad in black, move back and forth between a distant point where they pick up the sculptures-bones and the figural line behind which we sit. But we don’t just sit. The performance’s duration tests our joints and attention span. Some of us begin to wander off; others take notes; we share views about what we’re looking at; we stretch our numb limbs; watch the truck drivers stopping by to watch the performance. Still, the figures walking back and forth continue to beckon my gaze.
S is also for shards. There may have been no formal beginning, but there is—almost certainly—a formal ending. It occurs the moment when the witnesses are ushered into the performance space. We are invited to release handfuls of shards to the mound already created of the sculptures, and we oblige, crossing the borderline between performers and witnesses. Still, it is a kind of ending that cancels itself out, for something else follows it, though I cannot quite recall the sequence of actions (an unreliable witness). Some of the performers—all of them?—move toward another distant point where they have deposited the bubble wrap that protected the sculptures on their journey. They unroll and carry it ceremoniously towards the trailer hooked to the van where it is bundled away.
T is for trauma, how to own it, honor it, perhaps overcome it, how to translate its generative power into performance art. By the time we reach Calama, I’ve become acutely aware of the fact that this journey is not just the prelude to Return Atacama, a scripted and unscripted process leading to what is meant to be the culminating point, but also a performance in its own right. A constellation of visible and invisible narratives, somatic memories, inter/relationships that unfold now outwards, now inwards, CONSTELACIONES embodies and acts out trauma’s presentation but also performs the vagaries of collectives. While on the road, I experience the group not so much as a collective agency but as a gathering of individual agencies that unravel toward different directions, despite their shared destination. Each body performs its own memories of trauma.
Doris Difarnecio’s excitement about seeing the cordillera is infectious; she’s at home in the local language—her mother tongue—but her body is in constant tension, like a taut wire stretched to its utmost limit. Roewan Crowe—responsible for organizing this journey as a CCPPA project—shifts gears often, now explaining various aspects of the project, now melding into the collective. Christina Hajjar, the youngest member, is also Roewan’s research assistant and trip organizer; her face animated, she’s a bundle of energy. As for Monica Martinez, there are times that I think she disappears into her self; I want to talk more to her but I hesitate to cross the zone of silence that I feel surrounds her. Helene Vosters’s voice—its vocal timber, her precise enunciation—calls upon the space she inhabits; when I look at her I cannot help but see her body go limp, falling, again and again, “One year, 100 falls a day”—her Impact Afghanistan War counter-memorial performance, another tribute to a similar kind of trauma.
T is also for terminus, the terminus that keeps receding, for there is no terminus to this journey.
V is for Marcello’s Mercedes van that ferries us across the desert. Comfortable yet cramped, complete with Bluetooth access.
W is for the witness as performer manqué.