Stefan Kaegi — Reenactment

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Stefan Kaegi

Stefan Kaegi, a producer and director of documentary theater and radio projects, co-founded the Berlin-based collective Rimini Protokoll in 2002 with Helgard Haug and Daniel Wetzel.

Nine-year-old Yaoundé Mulamba Nkita was in French class when he heard his classroom bell sound. The teacher cried, “On the floor, on the floor!” It was 1998 in Kisangani, in what was then Zaire and is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. A few days later Yaoundé was with Laurent Désiré Kabila on the way to Rwanda, where he was to be trained as a soldier. Five years later, after dozens of murders and war crimes, Yaoundé was finally able to escape his role as a child soldier.

For Situation Rooms our stage designer, Dominic Huber, reconstructed a corner of Yaoundé’s Congolese classroom. Ten years after Kinshasa’s capture, we rehearsed with Yaoundé the reenactment of his recruitment. With a prop Kalashnikov rifle in one hand and an iPad mini in the other, Yaoundé went once again to the floor, raised a flag, and opened a door, as he had done back then. From sentence to sentence, his improvised text unintentionally alternated from past tense to present and back again; it was as if he was falling through a hole in time into the past and from there back again into the present.

Under the rubric of reenactment, thousands of amateur historians collect and reenact medieval battles. In the process they pay great attention to the minutia of costumes and props. Each of these signifiers emphasizes the pastness of the event. In this way, such reenactments often appear peculiarly abstracted (and “off”) and somehow useless.

Today, parallel to such historical reenactments, artistic projects often go far beyond the scope of historical reconstruction, especially when they move the live enactment of the past and its recontextualization into the foreground. In lieu of experiences out of history books, such projects often refer to subjective narratives and memories of history’s minor characters. They recall events whose aftershocks are felt to this day.

In 2009, when Milo Rau worked with Romanian actors to restage the videotapes of the trials against the Ceaușescus, the performance in Bucharest was legally prohibited because the Ceaușescus’ descendants were against the reenactment; a Romanian court decided that the family still had the rights to these texts. In this case the country had apparently not yet come to terms with its history. The distance between history and its reenactment was too small, and the debate over public and private access to such a transcript was still unresolved.

In our Situation Rooms, Yaoundé reenacted his own role. His task entailed reconstructing the situation of back then once more. He was not filmed in the process; instead he himself filmed from his perspective the floor: the flag, the doorknob, and his hand, how it opened the door. It is quite possible that, with each rehearsal, he moved himself one step further from a factually accurate account. Historical fidelity was not the point.

How precisely did Jeremy Deller reconstruct his reenactment of the miner’s strike in South Yorkshire, The Battle of Orgreave (2001)? He let the conflict be reenacted by former participants as well as historical reenactors. In doing so, the point was less to depict what happened in 1984 than it was to explore what happens with people in 2001 when they reenact the Thatcher era. Many former miners chose to play police officers this time. And some police officers joined in with the reenactment at the demonstration site.

With each repetition, Yaoundé made his past his own. And that is likely the difference between a historical reconstruction, which tries to remake the past—and forgets that the observer and the participant cannot themselves travel to that time—and a reenactment, which constructs the past in the present, invents the past in the present.

In 1927, when Sergey Eisenstein shot thousands of extras for the scene of the storming of the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg in his feature film October, he created the image that the majority of those born after the event have in their heads as the beginning of the October Revolution. The image of the historical event overlays reality. And what else can reality be than one of many memories of the moment? Each photo can provide only one of hundreds of possible perspectives on that which is represented. The monumentality of Eisenstein’s film monopolized the past.

My colleagues from Rimini Protokoll and I are theater makers. The cause for my goosebumps when viewing Yaoundé’s reenactment lies not in the past but rather in the reenactment.

When Yaoundé tried to press down the door handle at the shoot of Situation Rooms in March 2013 in his reconstructed classroom with the prop Kalashnikov, there stood, in the adjacent reconstructed Mexican graveyard film set, Alberto, who, as the administrator of Juarez’s cartel, was responsible for the transfer of cocaine into the United States; he stood in front of the graves of the people for whose deaths he is accountable. The graves were made out of papier-mâché, so there were no bodies, but the memory thereof was written so clearly across Alberto’s face that one briefly hoped he would regret his past. But this reenactment was no therapy session, no Familienaufstellung.1 The goal was not to heal. On the contrary: Alberto once again enacted his total indifference toward his victims. His deeds were still so recent that he could appear only under a false name.

Behind the next film set wall was a weapons manager from Switzerland, a Bundestag delegate of the left, the former chief of protocol of the Munich Security Conference, and a doctor from Sierra Leone, who performed moments from their lives such that for a moment they became alive or comprehensible, not as a single fate but rather as one of twenty puzzle pieces in a model of the global arms trade.

With reenactments, viewers, players, users, or concerned persons themselves climb once again into a stranger’s skin or their own. The result is, in the best case, farther from the past than from the present. It is an anticipatory simulation game that prepares us for the arrival of the future.

Half a year after the shoot with Yaoundé, I watch a viewer who—with iPad mini in hand—hunches up on the floor like Yaoundé. She follows the subjective tracking shot on the screen. She looks at the iPad mini, crouches down in a Congolese classroom that stands in a theater in Bochum, spins toward the door, and aims with the screen, maybe like Yaoundé had aimed with a real Kalashnikov in Congo. She embodies Yaoundé. Maybe. I do not know what is going on inside her, but I suddenly think that this contemporary form of theater is closer to the classical dramatic theory of Aristotle than any play on the stage could be: identification and catharsis. Not only in spirit but also in the bodily sense.

Translated from the German by Megan Hoetger and Aleksandr Rossman.


  1. The Familienaufstellung is part of a group therapeutic process in which family situations are reenacted. 


For Further Reference

Milo Rau / International Institute of Political Murder, Die letzten Tage der Ceausescus (The last days of the Ceausescus), 2009.

Jeremy Deller / Mike Figgis, The Battle of Orgreave, 2001.

Rimini Protokoll, Situation Rooms, 2013.

Sergey Eisenstein, October: Ten Days That Shook the World (1928).

See Also

Score — Pablo Helguera

Theatricality — Mark Russell

Rimini Protokoll, Situation Rooms, 2013. Photo © Ruhrtriennale / Jörg Baumann.

Milo Rau / International Institute of Political Murder, Die letzten Tage der Ceausescus (The last days of the Ceausescus), 2009. Photo: Karl-Bernd Karwasz.

In 1920, under the direction of Nikolai Evreinov, thousands of participants (including Vladimir Lenin and thousands of Red Guards) reenacted the storming of the tsar's Winter Palace three years earlier, a pivotal moment in the October Revolution. Sergey Eisenstein used footage from the event in his film October: Ten Days that Shook the World (1928).

Paul Chan, Waiting for Godot in New Orleans, 2007. Photo: Frank Aymami. Courtesy of Creative Time.

Andrea Fraser, Projection, 2008. Still from a 2-channel HD video projection installation. © Andrea Fraser. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Nagel Draxler.

David Levine, Bystanders, 2015. Installation view, Gallery TPW, Toronto. Performer: William Ellis. Photo: Guntar Kravis.

VALIE EXPORT, TAPP und TASTKINO (Tap and touch cinema), 1968. © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / Bildrecht, Vienna. Photo © Werner Schulz.

My Barbarian (Malik Gaines, Jade Gordon, and Alexandro Segade), Broke People’s Baroque Peoples’ Theater, 2010. Courtesy of Alexandro Segade.

Richard Maxwell, Neutral Hero, 2012. The Kitchen, New York. From left: Janet Coleman, Bob Feldman, Lakpa Bhutia, Andie Springer, Jean Ann Garrish. Photo © Paula Court.

Miguel Gutierrez and Tarek Halaby in Gutierrez's Last Meadow, 2009. Dance Theater Workshop, New York, September 2009. Photo © Ian Douglas.

Mac Wellman, Muazzez, 2014. Performer: Steve Mellor. Chocolate Factory Theater, Queens, New York (a co-presentation with PS 122). Photo: Brian Rogers.

Janine Antoni, Yours Truly, 2010. Ink on paper, 5 7/8 x 8 1/2”. © Janine Antoni. Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York.

Yvonne Rainer, score for “Trio B: Running,” from The Mind Is a Muscle, 1966–68. Graphite and ink on paper, 8 5/16 x 7 5/16". The Getty Research Institute. © Yvonne Rainer.

Susan Leigh Foster, The Ballerina’s Phallic Pointe, 2011, a performed lecture in the series Susan Foster! Susan Foster! Three Performed Lectures, produced by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage and performed at the Philadelphia Live Arts Studio, 2011. Photo: Jorge Cousineau.

Opening performance of the exhibition “Trisha Brown: So That the Audience Does Not Know Whether I Have Stopped Dancing,” Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 2008. Brown improvises movements across a large piece of paper on the Medtronic Gallery floor, holding charcoal and pastel between her fingers and toes, drawing extemporarily. Photo: Gene Pittman for Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.

Allora & Calzadilla, Sediments Sentiments (Figures of Speech), 2007. Mixed-media installation with live performance and pre-recorded sound track, dimensions variable. © Allora & Calzadilla. Courtesy of Lisson Gallery.

Martha Rosler, Meta-Monumental Garage Sale, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2012. Courtesy of the artist.

Lucinda Childs, Pastime (1963), 2012, performed by Childs at Danspace as part of Platform 2012: "Judson Now." Photo © Ian Douglas.

Siobhan Davies and Helka Kaski, Manual, 2013. Photo © Alan Dimmick. Courtesy of Glasgow Life.

“Performance Now,” curated by RoseLee Goldberg. Installation view, Kraków Theatrical Reminiscences, Poland, 2014. Photo: Michal Ramus. Courtesy of Independent Curators International (ICI).

Steve Paxton, Intravenous Lecture (1970), 2012. Performed by Stephen Petronio with Nicholas Sciscione. Part of Platform 2012: “Judson Now,” curated by Judy Hussie-Taylor, Danspace, New York. Photo © Ian Douglas.

Installation view, “Dance Works I: Merce Cunningham—Robert Raschenberg,” curated by Darsie Alexander at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 2011. Photo: Gene Pittman for Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.

Chief Dalcour and the Serenity Peace Birds in “Public Practice: An Anti-Violence Community Ceremony,” curated by Delaney Martin and Claire Tancons for New Orleans Airlift, October 25, 2014. Photo: Josh Brasted.

Ain Gordon and David Gordon, The Family Business, premiered 1993. Performers: David Gordon, Ain Gordon, Valda Setterfield. Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein. Courtesy of the photographer and Pick Up Performance Co(s).

Hotel Modern, Kamp, 2005. Photo: Herman Helle.

Janine Antoni, Anna Halprin, and Stephen Petronio, Rope Dance, 2015. Photo © Hugo Glendinning. Courtesy of the artists and The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia.

Sarah Michelson, Devotion Study #1—The American Dancer, 2012 Whitney Biennial, February 26, 2012. Photo © Paula Court. Performers: Eleanor Hullihan and Nicole Mannarino.

Ralph Lemon, How Can You Stay in the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere?, 2009. Archival print from original film. © Ralph Lemon.

Pope.L, The Great White Way, 22 miles, 9 years, 1 street (Whitney version), 2001. © Pope.L. Courtesy of the artist and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York. Photo: Lydia Grey.

Iannis Xenakis, Terretektorh, Distribution of Musicians, 1965. Collection famille Xenakis. Courtesy of the Iannis Xenakis Archives. © Iannis Xenakis.

Lisa Bielawa, Chance Encounter, premiered 2007. Co-conceived with Susan Narucki. Photo: Corey Brennan, 2010, Rome.

Claudia La Rocco, 173-177 [or, Facebook Is Inescapable], 2013. Headlands Center for the Arts. Courtesy of José Carlos Teixeira.

Pina Bausch and the Tanztheater Wuppertal, Palermo, Palermo, Brooklyn Academy of Music, 1991. Photo: Maarten Vanden Abeele.

Tomás Saraceno, Observatory, Air-Port-City, 2008. In “Psycho Buildings: Artists Take on Architecture,” curated by Ralph Rugoff, Hayward Gallery, London. Courtesy of the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York.

Christian Marclay, Chalkboard, 2010, paint and chalk, 210 x 1,045 inches. Installation view, “Christian Marclay: Festival,” 2010, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Collection of the artist; courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. Photo: Christian Marclay.

Steven Schick at the “Peacock” in the Paul Dresher Ensemble Production of Schick Machine, 2009, by Paul Dresher, Steven Schick, and Rinde Eckert. Mondavi Center, UC Davis, Davis, CA. Photo: Cheung Chi Wai.

Ralph Lemon in An All Day Event: The End, part of Platform 2012: “Parallels.” Danspace, New York. Photo © Ian Douglas.

Installation view, “Allison Smith: Rudiments of Fife & Drum,” The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield, CT. Photo: Chad Kleitsch. Courtesy of The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum.

David Levine, Habit, 2012. Installation view, Luminato Festival, Toronto, 2011. Photo: David Levine.

Meredith Monk, Shards (1969–73), 2012. Part of Platform 2012: “Judson Now,” curated by Judy Hussie-Taylor, Danspace, New York. Photo © Ian Douglas.

Berlin, Bonanza, 2006. A documentary project focusing on Bonanza, Colorado, population 7. © Berlin. berlinberlin.be.

Gob Squad, Kitchen (You’ve Never Had It So Good), 2007. Photo © David Baltzer / bildbuehne.de / Agentur Zenit Berlin.

Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz, Hole in Space, 1980. On screens in front of Lincoln Center and The Broadway department store in Los Angeles, passersby could see and talk to their counterparts on the opposite coast, and many “reunions” were quickly set up, in this early example of video conferencing. Courtesy of the Sherrie Rabinowitz and Kit Galloway Archives.

Hans Haacke, News, 1969/2005. Installation view, “State of the Union,” Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, 2005. © Hans Haacke / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. Courtesy of the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.

Pauline Oliveros, circa 1967. Courtesy of the CCM Archive, Mills College, Oakland, CA.

The Builders Association, Elements of Oz, 2015. Photo: Gennadi Novash. Courtesy of Peak Performances @ Montclair State University.

Ain Gordon, A Disaster Begins, 2009. Veanne Cox. Here Arts Center, New York. Photo: Jason Gardner. Courtesy of the photographer and Pick Up Performance Co(s).

The Wooster Group, BRACE UP!, 1991. Directed by Elizabeth LeCompte. Anna Köhler (on monitor) and Willem Dafoe. Photo © Mary Gearhart.

Joanna Haigood and Charles Trapolin, The Monkey and the Devil, performance installation, 2011. Performers: Matthew Wickett, Sean Grimm, Jodi Lomask. Photo: Walter Kitundu.

Jarbas Lopes, Demolition Now, in “SPRING,” curated by Claire Tancons for the 7th Gwangju Biennale, Gwangju, 2008. Photo: Akiko Ota.

Lisa Bielawa, Crissy Broadcast (part of Airfield Broadcasts), San Francisco, 2013. Photo: James Block.

Erwin Wurm, One Minute Sculpture, 1997/2005. © Erwin Wurm. Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.

Ethyl Eichelberger as Minnie the Maid, 1981. Photo: Peter Hujar. The Peter Hujar Archive. Courtesy of Pace MacGill and Fraenkel Galleries.

Wu Tsang with Alexandro Segade, Mishima in Mexico, 2012. Color HD video, 14:32 minutes. Courtesy of the artists, Clifton Benevento (New York), Michael Benevento (Los Angeles), and Isabella Bortolozzi (Berlin).

Young Jean Lee, Untitled Feminist Show, 2012. Baryshnikov Arts Center, New York, 2012. Hilary Clark, Regina Rocke, and Katy Pyle. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.

Romeo Castellucci, On the Concept of the Face Regarding the Son of God, 2010. Philadelphia Live Arts Festival, 2013. Photo: Kevin Monko.

Jérôme Bel, Le dernier spectacle (The last performance), 1998. Photo: Herman Sorgeloos.

Troubleyn / Jan Fabre, Mount Olympus, 2015. Performance lasts 24 hours. Photo © Wonge Bergmann for Troubleyn / Jan Fabre.

Siobhan Davies Studios, Roof Studio, London. Photo: Peter Cook.

Emily Roysdon, Sense and Sense (a project with MPA), Sergels torg, Stockholm, Sweden, 2010. Courtesy of the artist.

David Lang’s home studio. Photo © Jorge Colombo.

Marcel Duchamp, Bicycle Wheel, 1964 (replica of 1913 original). Wheel and painted wood. Philadelphia Museum of Art. Gift of the Galleria Schwarz d’Arte, Milan, 1964. © Succession Marcel Duchamp / ADAGP, Paris / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, 2016.

Historical interpreters from Freetown Living History Museum, as part of Allison Smith’s 2008 project The Donkey, The Jackass, and The Mule, with the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Photo: Allison Smith and Michelle Pemberton.

Rimini Protokoll, Situation Rooms, 2013. Photo © Ruhrtriennale / Jörg Baumann.

Jeanine Oleson and Ellen Lesperance, We Like New York and New York Likes Us, 2004. A “wry look back” at Joseph Beuys’s performance with a coyote, I Like America and America Likes Me, René Block Gallery, New York, 1974. Courtesy of the artists.

Christine Hill, Volksboutique Organizational Ventures, 2001. Mixed-media installation, Kunstverein Wolfsburg, Germany. Courtesy of Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York.

Andrea Fraser, Museum Highlights: A Gallery Talk, 1989. Performance. Performance documentation: Kelly & Massa Photography. Courtesy of the artist. © Andrea Fraser.

Theaster Gates, Dorchester Projects, Chicago, 2012. © Theaster Gates. Photo © Sara Pooley. Courtesy of White Cube.

John Cage, two pages from 4'33" (original version, in proportional notation), 1952/1953. Ink on paper, 11 x 8 1/2" each sheet. Acquired by The Museum of Modern Art through the generosity of Henry Kravis in honor of Marie-Josée Kravis. © 1993 Henmar Press Inc. All rights reserved. Used by permission of C. F. Peters Corporation. Photo © The Museum of Modern Art / Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY.

Yoko Ono, Painting For The Wind, summer 1961. First published in Yoko Ono: Grapefruit (Tokyo: Wunternaum Press, July 4, 1964). © Yoko Ono.

Rosemary Lee, Square Dances, 2011, commissioned by Dance Umbrella. Square Dances took place in four central London squares throughout a day, with different casts in each: 10 children in Woburn Square, 100 women in Gordon Square, 35 men in Brunswick Gardens, 25 dance students in Queen Square. Each performance involved bells, ranging from a huge church bell that struck every minute; to a handmade musical instrument using bells within its barrel structure, created and composed by Terry Mann; to tiny hand bells for the dancers. Photo: Hugo Glendinning.

Joanna Haigood and Wayne Campbell, Ghost Architecture, 2004. An aerial dance installation centering on the architectural and social history of the site. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco.

Ann Hamilton, the event of a thread, 2012–13. Park Avenue Armory, New York. Curated by Kristy Edmunds. Photo © Ian Douglas.

Robert Wilson and Marina Abramović, The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, premiered 2011. Park Avenue Armory, New York, 2013. Foreground: Willem Dafoe. Photo: Joan Marcus. Courtesy of Park Avenue Armory.

Richard Maxwell, Neutral Hero, 2012. The Kitchen, New York. From left: Janet Coleman, Bob Feldman, Lakpa Bhutia, Andie Springer, Jean Ann Garrish. Photo © Paula Court.

Ann Liv Young, The Bagwell in Me, 2008. Photo: Scott Newman, Revel in New York.

Xavier Le Roy, “Retrospective,” 2012–. Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona, 2012. Photo: Lluís Bover. © Fundació Antoni Tàpies.

Ethyl Eichelberger as Minnie the Maid, 1981. Photo: Peter Hujar. The Peter Hujar Archive. Courtesy of Pace MacGill and Fraenkel Galleries.

David Levine, Habit, 2012. Installation view, Luminato Festival, Toronto, 2011. Photo: David Levine.

Rimini Protokoll, 100% Yogyakarta, 2015. Teater Garasi, Yogyakarta, Java, Indonesia. © Goethe-Institut Indonesien / KDIP Viscom.

Bebe Miller Company, A History, 2012. Angie Hauser and Darrell Jones. Photo: Michael Mazzola.