Silhouettes: Choreographies of Remembrance Against Enforced DisappearanceDownload PDF
When analysing cycles of protest against enforced disappearance through history, one sees a wide range of visual practices used by activists to present and reinforce their grievances. In this article I will reflect on one such practice, the use of the silhouette of the human body to denounce enforced disappearance. In so doing, this paper will discuss a series of artistic actions in the context of social mobilisation to analyse the construction of collective memories of the disappeared.
I will assess the use of silhouettes in two different contexts, Mexico and Argentina. Why compare Argentina with Mexico in the shaping of collective memories of the disappeared? The particularity of this relation lies in the clear differences that exist in remembrance tradition between the two countries. While Argentina is a central actor in the memory processes of post-dictatorship Latin America, there is a significant absence of attention paid to and mobilisation on behalf of the disappeared of Mexico, despite a significant rise in disappearances in the country (current government estimates indicate 33,125 disappeared or missing persons in Mexico since 20061). Furthermore, despite a history of state-sponsored repression through enforced disappearances during the “dirty war” of the 1970s, Mexico is conspicuously absent from the transnational memory of enforced disappearances in Latin America. In this infamous context, the Ayotzinapa case is a pivotal moment in the construction of memory in Mexico.2 It rapidly became a global issue, raising awareness of the crimes and the responsibility of the Mexican state. Moreover, it allowed national civil organisations and family members, with a long history of pressure and protest, to leverage international pressure into beneficial regulations that had in the past been repeatedly denied to them. In this sense, the adoption of representations, actions and repertoires from the Latin American tradition in the cycle of protests after Ayotzinapa, inscribes the case in the long memory of enforced disappearances, and in so doing explicitly named a crime that has been elusive in Mexican history.
I will show how the silhouette was crystallised as a memory device after World War II, later remediated into a graphic action in Argentina in 1983, and then used in two different actions in the cycle of protests after the enforced disappearance of the Ayotzinapa students. As this memory device is not created ex nihilo, it combines and updates representations and narratives of previous traumatic events. Following Diana Taylor (2003) and Rebecca Schneider (2011), I characterize these actions as performances, and part of an “immanent archive”, one that has been re-opened and actualised throughout history in different historical and sociopolitical contexts, creating meaning and connecting experiences and genealogies. The notion of “immanent archive” I want to mobilize (one that is mainly bodily and affective) is constructed in tension with performance studies’ orientation to the ephemerality of performance, as well as with the traditional notion of “the archive” of western epistemology.
My hypothesis is that through the lens of the notion of “performance,” the immanent side of transmission arises, allowing new conceptualizations to take form amid performance, dance studies and affect theory. Within these lines of inquiry I will delve into the affects that are shared and recalled within performances, allowing participants to cypher collectively the contemporary panorama of state-fostered crime and oblivion. I will propose that this collective cyphering is coloured by “dignified rage” in opposition to the threat and violence that enforced disappearance creates. With this “dignified rage” participants create and rehearse a new social order within the kinaesthetic, contesting the state imperative of social disintegration.
I would like to address the following questions: why a silhouette? Or, how can a silhouette represent the disappeared? How can moments and situations of memory be created? How are those moments shared? With intensity? With danger? Under threat? What are the emotions that arise in those moments and situations? What kind of organisation do they require? How are they re-shaped side by side with technology and the internet?
I will first briefly present the graphic actions, to characterise them subsequently as performances. I will then draw on discussion of the two different remediations of the silhouette and its effects within the performative to finally present the analysis on the affects circulating among them. During the course of my research I conducted interviews with the organisers of the artistic actions, which will be included in the argumentation.3
The Graphic Actions
The core actions I will analyze are the siluetazos of the Argentinian artists Rodolfo Aguerreberry, Guillermo Kexel and Julio Flores. These actions were developed to demand the presence of missing people during the military dictatorship in Argentina in the 1970s. The first action took place during the Marcha de la Resistencia (“resistance march”) organised by Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo on September 21, 1983. This action consisted of a public workshop, during which the artists and the general public painted human-sized silhouettes on cardboard and then placed the silhouettes on walls, monuments and trees. Participants used their own bodies as models, lying on the paper while others drew their silhouettes. As the action developed, some people started writing the name of a disappeared person and the date of disappearance, or drawing physical characteristics (such as eyes, noses, faces) on the silhouettes. Some silhouettes represented abducted pregnant women or children.
The silhouettes remained in place once the protest was over, placing the figures of the disappeared in the public sphere and challenging the government’s silence. After the first such action, the production of silhouettes intensified. Human rights activists and artists connected to Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo prepared a second action in December 1983. They wanted to cover the city with 30,000 silhouettes, representing the total number of disappeared. The action was repeated a third time in March 1984, this time spontaneously.4
Image 1. “El Siluetazo”. Buenos Aires 21/22 September 1983. Photography by Eduardo Gil.
According to Julio Flores, the inspiration for the siluetazo came from the Polish artist Jerzy Skąpski (Longoni and Bruzzone 91). In October 1978, UNESCO Courier republished a poster created by Skąpski, where he used silhouettes to commemorate the victims of Auschwitz. The caption of the poster reads, “Every day at Auschwitz brought death to 2,370 people, and this is the number of figures represented above.” In this relationship we can find the first remediation of the silhouette as a memory device, a remediation which modified the device in two directions. First, the object of grievance changed from representing the dead of Auschwitz to the disappeared of Argentina, and second, it evolved from a poster reproduced in a magazine to a graphic action in the street.
In 2014, the same approach as that used in Argentina in the early 1980s was used by a group of artists based at the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art (MACBA) to draw attention to the forty-three missing Mexican students from Ayotzinapa.5 Directly referencing the Argentinian siluetazo, for the “siluetazo por Ayotzinapa” the artists invited the general public to an open workshop held on the entrance stairs of MACBA, where they created forty-three human-sized silhouettes on cardboard. Then they gave a public speech naming the missing Mexican students and counting them out loud, followed by a march towards a recently created “altar for the disappeared” where they put the silhouettes. Again, the models for the silhouettes was the participants’ living bodies, with each silhouette identified with a picture of the face and the name of a disappeared student.
Image 2. Siluetazo in Barcelona. Image reproduced by permission of the organizers of the action.
The action was recorded and a video, image and text archive was created and stored on the webpage of MACBA. The artists proposed to use the material generated during the siluetazo to carry out an “online guerrilla” on social media platforms. In this way, the action was deeply changed and updated compared to the Argentine action.
The artist Juanpablo Avendaño Ávila likewise used silhouettes as a memory device in the context of the protests over the missing students of Ayotzinapa, this time in Mexico City. He printed upper-body silhouettes on which were written phrases of political content; other phrases refer to ways citizens behave or should behave in the context of disappearance. These silhouettes were used during the protests, held in front of the bodies of protesters as they walked. The eyes of each silhouette were cut out to allow the holder to see, as well as to blend the holder with the silhouette. This approach was used in several protests in the Ayotzinapa cycle. After the protests, some of the silhouettes were taken home by their users, while others remained in the streets.
Image 3. Silhouettes made by Juanpablo Avendaño Ávila. Image reproduced by permission of the author.
In the cases mentioned above, the use of the silhouette as a memory device enabled the inscription of the figure of the disappeared in the public sphere, with a decisive political effect. Alongside the graphic inscription of absence achieved by such silhouettes, the embodied side of the practice supposed an immanent form of memory that allowed the upsurge of affections and agency. To clarify this I will characterise the actions as performances, and, by doing so, as “immanent archives” that are constantly being re-opened.
Choreographies of Remembering
The notion of performance as understood by Diana Taylor is a suitable methodological lens through which to focus the analysis of the use of silhouettes. Defined in a broader sense as “embodied behaviors” and “embodied practices,” performance is understood to be “acts of transfer: transmitting social knowledge, memory, and a sense of identity” (Taylor, 2). Moreover, Taylor defines performance as “a system of learning, storing and transmitting knowledge” (16). Her theory of performance is especially suitable in this case, as she understands performance as a way of transmitting traumatic memory, focusing her analysis on post-dictatorship memory construction in Argentina.
Within the vast discipline of performance studies, Rebecca Schneider’s Performing Remains is also a suitable framework for studying the siluetazos. Focusing on performance re-enactment in times of war, Schneider states that in “the practice of re-playing or re-doing a precedent event, artwork, or act […] reenactors try to bring the time –that prior moment– to the very fingertips of the present” (Schneider 2011, 2). Re-enactment is understood as a “`get-up´ of the before, during, and after any action taking place in or as re-actions: the affected effects and after-effects of art/events posed as relative to originals” (Schneider 2011, 2). In this sense, we can think about how the siluetazo in Argentina in 1983 condensed specific meaning constructions and feelings, and how its re-enactment connects with these meaning constructions, creating sense and unveiling certain affects.
My concern with artistic repertoires for addressing the problem of enforced disappearance is thus enlightened by the concepts of performance and re-enactment. They allow me to suggest that the use of the silhouette in performative actions in the context of political protest acts as an “immanent archive,” as a specific way of addressing, coping with, and understanding disappearance.
Referring to the siluetazo performances, or any other performance, as an “immanent archive,” requires a detour to the problematisation of ephemerality in performance studies. Herbert Blau’s idea of performance as “always at the vanishing point” (28) or Peggy Phelan’s proposition that “performance becomes itself through disappearance” (146) are contrasted by Rebecca Schneider with “works in which the political manipulation of ‘disappearance’ demand a material criticism – works such as Diana Taylor’s Disappearing Acts (1997) or Jose Muñoz’s ‘Ephemera as Evidence’ (1996)” (Schneider 2001, 206). Schneider states that such works “create a productive tension within performance studies orientation to (and sometimes celebration of) ephemerality” (2001, 106).
I will focus on Taylor’s work as her concept of performance is central to the article. Taylor’s reassessment of expressive and embodied culture is linked with her goal “to challenge the preponderance of writing in western epistemologies” (16). Referring to the Latin American culture, Taylor traces back the writing/embodied dilemma to the American conquest and explains how the separation between embodied culture and writing supposed that “non-verbal practices –such as dance, ritual, and cooking, to name a few– that long served to preserve a sense of communal identity and memory, were not considered valid forms of knowledge” (19). She continues: “The rift, I submit, does not lie between the written and the spoken word, but between the archive of supposedly enduring materials (i.e., texts, documents, buildings, bones) and the so-called ephemeral repertoire of embodied practices/knowledge (i.e., spoken language, dance, sports, ritual)” (Taylor 19).
Taylor intends to leave behind the traditional “archive”/”repertoire” dichotomy (and specially the preponderance of the former) that is used to disregard performance.6 She ultimately pushes for a new relationship between the “archive” and the “repertoire”, as she writes, “[t]he relationship between the archive and the repertoire, as I see it, is certainly not sequential (the former ascending to prominence after the disappearance of the latter, as Nora would have it). Nor is it true versus false, mediated versus unmediated, primordial versus modern. Nor is it a binary” (Taylor 22). Moreover, she considers that, “[t]hey usually work in tandem” (Taylor 21). For her, “[t]he repertoire, on a very practical level, expands the traditional archive” (Taylor 26). She also underscores that although embodied memory “is live […] that does not mean that performance –as ritualized, formalized, or reiterative behavior– disappears” (Taylor 20).
Rebecca Schneider also contributes to this orientation. She writes “[w]hen we approach performance not as that which disappears (as the archive expects), but as both the act of remaining and a means of reappearance (though not a metaphysics of presence) we almost immediately are forced to admit that remains do not have to be isolated to the document, to the object, to bone versus flesh. Here the body –even Hodge's bloating one– becomes a kind of archive and host to a collective memory […]” (Schneider 2001, 103, italics added). Schneider pushes the dilemma further when she considers oral and embodied culture “as already an archive, a performative archive” (Schneider 2001, 103).
In the quest for redefining the preponderance of the traditional western archive, Taylor and Schneider, among others, problematise the tendency to equate performance with ephemerality, proposing a suitable framework to think embodied action in the transmission of memory. I use the notion of “immanent archive,” drawing from the aforementioned intention, to rephrase and emphasise Taylor’s conception of “performance as expanding the archive” and Schneider’s “body as archive” or “performative archive” as previously cited.
I would like to posit that the construction of an effective narrative to deal with disappearance using the silhouette cannot be found only in its material traces, but also in what is immanently archived and restored in its remediations. I would like to think of cultural memory as a practice, as an act of imagination and interconnection in which the body and its feelings are the key factors. Taylor writes that “the body in embodied cultural memory is specific, pivotal, and subject to change. Why this insistence on the body? Because it is impossible to think about cultural memory and identity as disembodied” (86). Approaching this from the perspective of memory studies, Astrid Erll posits “cultural memory” as a metaphor and umbrella term for various forms of experience and knowledge which are shared and passed on within social formations. It is a kind of “archive, which, however, has to be performed to become meaningful for the individuals and groups who do the remembering in their respective present” (Erll 2010, 306). Using this framework, we can understand the use of the silhouette as a practice of cultural memory which is re-embodied across time and space to represent disappearance.
Describing the cultural dynamics of remembrance, Ann Rigney characterizes memory as a “selective practice” or as a “selective transformation of the archive” (4). Within these dynamics, “memory becomes collective when it is shared, and for it to be shared it must be mediated” (Rigney 4). Following her proposition, memory is continuously remediated as it circulates –or travels (Erll 2011, 11)– while, “thanks to reiteration, it continues to reach new publics at the same as it regularly undergoes small changes” (Rigney 5).
In the following two sections of this article I will present the major remediation undergone by the silhouette when it was incorporated as a memory device to fight against enforced disappearance. The first, and central, remediation is the passage from a poster to a performative action. The second remediation is that which is proposed by the performances for the Ayotzinapa students, where the immanency of the actions is launched onto the internet in the context of Global Actions Days for Ayotzinapa.
From a Poster to a Performance: the Global Memory Imperative and the Latin American Perspective
The first remediation of the silhouette in the context of fighting against enforced disappearance was the transformation, in Argentina in 1983, of Jerzy Skąpski’s poster into a graphic action by Arguereberry, Kexel and Flores.
The use of the silhouette to represent missing bodies has a long history. José Emilio Burucúa and Nicolás Kwiatkowski understood Skąpski’s use of the silhouette as a landmark in an emerging aesthetic for representing massacres. The authors trace the use of the silhouette in art history and stress that it became a productive device for representing massacres after the Holocaust, especially in contexts where there is death, but without a corpse. The “multiplication of the Doppelgänger formula”, as established by the authors, appears “ultimately, when commemorative strategies fail. Texts, portraits, paintings, evocations of the popular tradition, all these instruments end up being ineffective and the attempt to commemorate seems futile. The only way the past is made present is through the double and repetition” (Burucúa and Kwiatkowski 195). In this scheme, the silhouette appears to be suitable to bring this traumatic past into the present. In line with Adorno’s criticism of representation after World War II, the Holocaust transformed itself into a core and elusive object, allowing the emergence of new artistic practices intended to deal with trauma. The Holocaust not only serves as a metaphor for the building of key conceptual terms for memory construction in Latin America such as “concentration camps,” “perpetrators” and “victims,” but as stated by Burucúa and Kwiatkowski, it has established a particular aesthetic (11-48), with the use of the silhouette being one example of this (179-210).
The conceptual and aesthetic influence of the Holocaust in memory processes is widely studied, what Daniel Levy and Natan Sznaider (2006, 2010) have called the “global memory imperative” and Andreas Huyssen, the “globalization paradox of memory” (13). This “globalization paradox,” as understood by Huyssen, allows us to frame the transnational travel of the use of the silhouettes in Latin America. How did this particular aesthetic, that arose to deal with traumatic events of the mid-twentieth century in Europe, come to be used in Argentina in 1983 and almost forty years later in Mexico? Huyssen explains how, in the globalised paradox, the Holocaust becomes the universal trope for historical trauma: “In the transnational movement of memory discourses, the Holocaust loses its quality as index of the specific historical event and begins to function as a metaphor for other traumatic histories and memories” (14). In our case, Jerzy Skąpski’s poster portraying the victims of Auschwitz directly inspires Argerreberry Kexel and Flores to develop the siluetazo, before being used in Mexico in the context of that country’s own disappearances. Auschwitz acts as an underlying metaphor in the denunciation of the Argentinian disappearances through the performative use of the silhouette, and this is consciously appropriated later to denounce the practice in Mexico.
The “globalization paradox” is important in understanding this memory device and its geographical movement, but when analysing why performances have remediated this device, we find the answer in the Latin American activist experience. Teresa Basile and Abril Trigo pointed out that in the 1980s and 1990s, Latin American countries that underwent traumatic political events faced memory construction with the Holocaust as a universal trope. Against this, Basile and Trigo proposed going back to the complexity of the local sociopolitical structures to find coloniality in the heart of memory practices. For them,
Sin duda, la problemática de la memoria en América Latina exhibe su propia temporalidad y su propia historia, que arranca con la conquista, se continúa bajo las distintas variantes del colonialismo, el neocolonialismo, el poscolonialismo y el colonialismo interno, y se reformula en la organización de los estados modernos, la invención de los imaginarios nacionales y la configuración de identidades siempre en vilo, siempre ambiguas, siempre en disputa. (Basile y Trigo, 4-5)
Tracing back the local genealogies of these performative actions will lead us to the same knots observed by Basile and Trigo. Anti-neoliberalism and anti-colonialism are both at the core of the silhouette actions, with the correspondent aesthetic consequences. According to Julio Flores, in the case of the Argentinian action its organisers “needed to look back to the experience of the early 1970s or read between the lines in the newspapers the actions of Latin American exiles and resistance groups against the dictatorship” (Flores cited in Longoni and Bruzzone 87). Here he refers to the experience of avant-garde art that flourished in Argentina in the late 1960s and 1970s. One of the biggest such actions, which was cited directly by the organisers of the siluetazo, was “Tucumán Arde,” a series of artistic actions carried out in 1969 in the cities of Tucumán and Rosario, in which a group of artists, journalists and sociologists looked to denounce the harmful consequences of the economic measures and neoliberal policies being applied in Latin America (Longoni and Bruzzone 85).7 This tradition influenced Arguereberry, Kexel and Flores who chose to drive their project beyond the boundaries of the museum or gallery and to propose an avant-garde collective action, transforming completely the aesthetic device of the silhouette as understood by Skąpski.
In the case of the use of the silhouettes in the protests over the enforced disappearance of the Mexican students, the avant-garde collective street action was also privileged in the actions in Barcelona and Mexico-City. In neither city did the organisers want to frame their action within the traditional art environment, choosing instead to use street protests to make demands and mobilise feelings and representations. It must also be kept in mind that anti-colonialism and anti-neoliberalism is present in the history of Ayotzinapa and the Escuela Normal Rural Raúl Isidro Burgos, the school to which the missing students belonged, bringing other aesthetic consequences to the use of the silhouette. The state of Guerrero, and specially Ayotzinapa, was the scene of two of the most important revolutionary movements of Mexico’s so-called “dirty war,” the movement of Genaro Vázquez Rojas and Lucio Cabañas, the leader of the Partido de los Pobres (the Party of the Poor). The former was a student at the same school in Ayotzinapa as the missing students. From this moment on, the school and the city were crucial actors of resistance, spaces where the values of self-organisation, active intransigence and state defiance remain intact. This history of resistance is present in the whole cycle of protests over the Ayotzinapa case, and in the two actions that I analyse, it brought aesthetic consequences.
In the action organised by Juanpablo Avendaño Ávila, the anti-capitalist and anti-colonial actualisation of the silhouette came in the form of written phrases, words repeatedly shouted and shared among co-protesters that were crystallised in the silhouettes. From all the phrases chosen by Avendaño Ávila we can highlight those revealing the intention to implicate personally José Luis Abarca, the mayor of Iguala, and phrases that urged the dismantling of the economic system behind these crimes against humanity.
Image 4 and 5. Details of the phrases within the silhouettes made by Juanpablo Avendaño Ávila.8 Images reproduced with permission of the author.
The conjunction of memory and anti-colonialism also surrounds the action, as stated by the artist himself in the interviews I carried out with him:
The magnitude of the Ayotzinapa case has to do with the magnitude of things that it reveals. Ayotzinapa is an aberrant event that is connected to a large extent to capitalism like a form of annihilation, like a machine that does not stop even before human life. Ayotzinapa is connected with the international interests of exploitative Canadian mining companies, that in many cases force entire communities to move out, and which are in connivance with paramilitary groups to perpetuate their interests. (Avendaño Ávila)
While transmitting his personal view of the situation using phrases written within his silhouettes, Avendaño Ávila was searching for the “potential of the written word-thought” to create a disturbance in the people attending the protest (Avendaño Ávila).
In the case of the action in Barcelona, a personal story relating to each missing student was read while the silhouettes were being created, highlighting the revolutionary history of their school. This enunciation acted as a mood inscription, influencing the ongoing silhouetting of the bodies of the disappeared in cardboard. The speakers shouted the stories, at times crying, holding and embracing one other. I will look at this aspect of the actions below in more detail, but it is important to highlight the aesthetic significance of another point: some of the school’s irreverent intransigence and defiance infused the silhouettes and the action was updated and thoroughly transformed.
From the Street to the Net: “Online Guerrilla” as Remediation
I will now focus on a second remediation made by the actions over the Mexican students, especially by the siluetazo in Barcelona. This action had an interesting twist: there was also the intention to do “online guerrilla” on social media. To do this, the artists filmed the action and photographed the sequence of the creation of the silhouettes with the aim of going viral. In this sense, the silhouette here transformed itself in the digital sphere, constituting a new memory device, with the political power of this digital transformation relying on the possibility of infinite technical reproduction. The silhouette sense-creation is no longer limited to the experience of the performative action, but depends on the capacity of connectivity and digital flow. This by no means supposes a loss of significance for the silhouette, but following Walter Benjamin, I would like to highlight the political importance of this reproduction: “as soon as the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applied to artistic production, the whole social function of art is revolutionised. Instead of being founded on ritual, it is based on a different practice: politics” (25). This political importance of the digital was understood and strategically used by the organisers of the action, as these extracts from my interviews show:
Political participation depends on the possibilities of each individual person, on how to get involved with whatever social claim you believe in. At this moment the fact of giving an easy “click” or a “like” on social media served us, and served the action. It was what the relatives of the missing students were asking for: dissemination. So if someone gave us a “like”, for us it was good. In that strategic moment social media pressure was needed. We live in a time where the amount of likes you have defines the visibility of something […] you need that volume to give visibility. (Prado)
The Ayotzinapa moment showed that: new technologies, hashtag fever. I feel that it was a very positive outcome in the sense that it mobilised, that it generates presence […] And in the end the impulse that Ayotzinapa had was that, to be a virtual moment, a virtual space that everyone wanted to be part of, collaborate, share, post new things. They are the positive things that the virtual network has, to spread the word. Ayotzinapa was a watershed at the virtual community level. (Bayliss)
Placing the silhouette on the internet was necessary in the contingency of the Ayotzinapa case where the Mexican state was pushing for forgetfulness. Activist networks needed to address the international arena in a short time, using social media and the internet, to prevent the event from fading away with the rest of the country’s horrific daily crimes. This online strategy can be understood in the context of what Andrew Hoskins calls the “connective turn” in the configuration of memories (2011, 19-20). This connective turn, allowed by the “abundance, pervasiveness and accessibility of communication networks, nodes and digital media content” (Hoskins 2011, 20), meant a huge change in the configuration of memories:
Hypernarratives forged through the tight packing and layering of digital and digitalized media content, afford a memory beyond real-time. That is to say digital data-bases re-spatialize and re-temporize events through their interactive assembling and mapping of disparate simultaneities, which affect a multimodal hypernarrative. (Hoskins 2011, 28)
In this case, the hypernarrative of Ayotzinapa, which flooded the internet for about two months, meant the digitalisation and circulation of thousands of actions like the ones analysed in this article, and the constant sharing and connection of experiences, enlarging spatial reach and time-permanence, crucial for activists in the search for justice.
An interesting example can be added concerning the use of the silhouette in the construction of digital memories. This is the case of the online commemoration of March 24 in Argentina.9 In 2008, 2009 and 2010 a particular commemoration arose on Facebook; in this strategy users removed their profile pictures, leaving to stand in its place the generic Facebook profile picture, the silhouette of a head. This empty-profile movement was studied by Agustina Triquell (2013) and Cecilia Sosa (2018) who considered it a digital siluetazo, referring to the original action of 1983. Sosa refers to this strategy as part of a shift in the mourning process in Argentina. If traditionally after the return of democracy in 1983 the memory of the victims was delineated by a network of organisations of victims’ families with a strong discourse on the biological bond of mourning, the Facebook silhouette action showed a new process in the configuration of memories, in which civil society, as well as relatives, participated in the representation of victims, “allow[ing] the delineation of an amplified community, who proposed to rethink the relationship of kinship, memory and politics for the new generations” (Sosa 129). Considering Hoskins’s thoughts on digital memories we can see how digital ecology allowed and fostered this kind of transformation: “[…] individuals and groups feel active in an array of connectivity practices such as posting, linking, liking, recording, swiping, scrolling, forwarding, etc. digital media content, and yet do so compulsively, constituting a new coercive multitude […]”(2017, 15).
These “coercive multitudes” were also the target of the digitalisation of the Barcelona silhouette action, allowing the action to circulate endlessly with the rest of the media content. In this section I have tried to show how the digital media remediated the performances, thus enlarging the remembrance communities. In the following section I will discuss how these communities were shaped, and what affects arose from this shaping.
Dignified Rage: the Role of Affects in the Shaping of a New Social Order
Up to now, I have tried to characterise the silhouette actions as performances in order to consider them as an immanent archive that is re-enacted and remediated across time and space to deal with enforced disappearance. Now I will argue for an affective approach to these immanent memories, affect being a predominant component of what emerges and circulates in these re-enactments. I will consider “dignified rage”10 as the way affect was codified within the performances, which helped to create new affiliations and an extended community, rehearsing and enacting at the same time a new social order within the performative –a social order that is contesting state-fostered disintegration and oblivion.
Within the studies that deal with affect, a distinction can be made between two main theoretical currents; the first set of works follows Silvan Tomkins’s scheme that describes affects as emotions or feelings, highlighting the bodily nature of affects, how they are contagious, or mimetic, starting in one body and resonating in others (Tomkins and Karon 1992); the second set, on which I will now focus, contains the works of “those critics and theorists who, indebted to Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Baruch Spinoza and Henri Bergson, conceptualize affect as pre-individual bodily forces augmenting or diminishing a body’s capacity to act” (Clough 207).
If the common ground within this latter set is the consideration of affect as pre-individual, I will specifically follow Ben Anderson who renders the “pre-individual intensities” of affect with a collective lens imbricated in the political (14). For Anderson, “affects are collective: capacities to affect and be affected are always mediated in and through encounters,” thus, “any particular body’s charge of affect therefore carries traces of other bodies’ and finally affects become the environment within which people dwell” (105). This definition –affect as something with its own existence previous to the subject´s experience, as moments, energies or intensities that precede perception and that arise during encounters, and which at the same time are the ground for encounters– supports the hypothesis I propose: that in the silhouette actions, an important part of what is immanently archived and re-enacted is a specific, previous affect to cope with the crime of enforced disappearance. In Anderson’s words, “[a]ffects are emergent from specific material arrangements […] but are not reducible to the material collectives that they emerge from. They have an efficacy within those collectives” (13-4).
When activists in Barcelona decided to organise a siluetazo for the Ayotzinapa students, they were not only mobilising a certain visual culture, or a historic repertoire, they were also cyphering amid the kinaesthetic a certain way of organising affection. They were not proposing a “minute’s silence,” or “a candle-lit vigil” (to mention only two other possible approaches used by human rights advocacy networks); the siluetazo instead meant opening a collective workshop on the street, inviting the public to use their own bodies in the creation of the silhouettes of the disappeared, shouting their names and stories, crying, holding hands. The same was true for Juanpablo Avendaño Ávila’s actions: protesters cut eye-holes in the silhouettes to see through, walked next to one another and carried not only traces of other bodies but also written phrases that opposed the government in a first-person plural full of anger and rage. “Dignified rage” can then be understood as a matrix of unveiled affects that turn the collective into action.
Rage mobilizes bodies, bringing them together, forcing them to gather in public spaces to mourn collectively. These performances demonstrate courage and action, with protests against enforced disappearance as an opportunity to get organised and protest politically, but also emotionally. Being together does not only embody an act of subversion but also is a necessary act of being with others, holding others’ hands, coping with the crime.
By revisiting the role of “dignified rage” in the configuration of collective memories, we can also stress that these moments of togetherness not only organise affect, but also propose a new social order among the participants and within the performative. It is in this direction that Andrew Hewitt proposes the notion of “social choreographies” to talk about dance and choreography “as it operates at the very base of social experience” (2). The aesthetic of performance, in this case mainly immanent and corporeal, allows participants and organisers to rehearse a new social order, one that is based on the proximity of bodies, company and action. In the context of State repression and enforced oblivion, the upsurge of hope is shaped within the performative, recuperating agency and countering the State version of the crimes through remembrance. In Hewitt’s words, “the aesthetic will function –and here we encounter the importance of the performative within our notion of social choreography– as a space in which social possibilities are both rehearsed and performed” (4).
In these choreographies of remembering, the devices are human bodies themselves and their relationships with other bodies, present and disappeared. This organisation of bodies holds up a possible social order, a social order in which civil society pushes justice from the bottom up, with “dignified rage,” into the oppressive machinery of the State through aesthetics. The kinaesthetic aspect of the silhouette performances was aimed at reconstructing traces of the missing bodies with the present ones, blurring the boundaries of presence and absence and bringing to bear thousands of neglected memories. Longoni and Bruzzone propose that the
demonstrators used their own body as a pattern […] The silhouette becomes in this way the imprint of two absent bodies, the one of who lent his body to delineate it and –by transfer– the body of a disappeared person, thus reconstructing broken ties of solidarity in a symbolic act of strong emotionality. (32)
By lying on the ground during the siluetazos in Argentina and Barcelona, or by looking through the eye-holes of Juanpablo Avendaño Àvila’s silhouettes, the phantasmagorical entity of the silhouetted figure of the disappeared is corporalised and obtains presence in the public sphere. Though the performances are not at all proposing the idea of restitution, the living bodies rehearse a possible communication with what has been taken away.
I have tried to define the silhouette actions discussed above as an immanent archive that is re-actualised through history. In the words of Maaike Bleeker:
this is a situation in which knowledge is not grounded in the materiality of documents, nor in the know-how embodied in practice, but in practices of constant regeneration in which humans, objects and technologies participate, and in which […] the archive itself becomes a function of transfer process. (211)
I have shown how this particular aesthetic evolved from the traumatic post-World War II context, to become incorporated within the repertoire of artistic actions in Argentina in 1983, configuring itself as a landmark in Latin American visual strategies, to end up, in present times, being re-used and deeply changed by actions for the disappeared Ayotzinapa students. In this circulation of the silhouette as a memory device, the performance remediated a poster, allowing the immanency of affect and movement to propose a new social order within the political. In the context of Mexican and Latin American families searching for their disappeared, this social order can be a sanctuary, a safe space to share and mourn. In doing so, they also construct sense.
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1 Data Cívica is adding 1,316 more persons to the 33,125 missing persons in Mexico, the official report of the Registro Nacional de Datos de Personas Extraviadas o Desaparecidas (RNPED) registers. See “En tres meses” (2018).
2 During the night of September 26, 2014 the local police and the Mexican army attacked a group of students from the Escuela Rural Normal Raúl Isidro Burgos of Ayotzinapa in the state of Guerrero, Mexico. That night, aside from the disappearance of the 43 students, nine people were killed, more than 40 injured and over 110 people were attacked. The total number of victims (direct and indirect) is calculated to be over 700 (Grupo Interdisciplinario de Expertos Independientes 313-15).
5 More information on the action and its organisers can be found at https://www.macba.cat/es/pei-siluetazo-ayotzinapa.
6 Although it is not the intention of this article to deepen Taylor’s use of the dichotomy between “archive” and “repertoire,” I introduce the subject to show how Taylor’s work is ultimately pushing for a reconfiguration of the traditional notion of the archive by taking into account what was regularly discarded as “ephemeral repertoire.” I propose that Taylor uses this dichotomy commonly found in traditional western epistemologies as a way to show its ineffectiveness to deal with memory and knowledge transmission in Latin America. By reframing the traditional opposition between writing and embodied culture (an opposition created to disregard the latter), Taylor renders both concepts closely but still separated; in that sense, she contradicts Schneider who equates embodiment with a “kind of archive” (2001, 103) or Maaike Bleeker who underscores the role of the embodied archive in transmission (211).
8 The first reads: “We have to show, in words and actions, that we are sick and tired of the incompetence and corruption of our governments and the businessmen that get rich supporting them”; the second: “Acting means maintaining the pressure on the government and their partners in crime in the political class and business consortium” [my translation].
9 The Day of Remembrance for Truth and Justice (Día de la memoria por la verdad y la justicia) is a public holiday in Argentina, commemorating the victims of the Military Government of 1976-1983. It is held on March 24, the anniversary of the coup d’état.
10 “Dignified rage” is a term coined by the EZLN (Zapatista Army of National Liberation) as a call to all the people of the world to shape a new political subjectivity out of resistance: “Let our rage grow and become hope, let our dignity take root again and breed another world” (EZLN 2008) are two of the statements they used to organize a “Festival of Dignified Rage.” They later recycled the term in various communications, but it was particularly prominent in EZLN proclamations related to Ayotzinapa (EZLN 2014). Recently, Ileana Diéguez (2017) also proposed “dignified rage” as a lens through which to focus on agency and resilience in fighting against enforced disappearance in Mexico.