After my visit to Villa Grimaldi with Pedro Matta, a friend told me he does the visit the same way every time—stands in the same spot, recounts the same events, cries at the Memorial Wall.
Never Again! again and again.
Some commentators find this odd, as if the routine makes the emotion suspect. Are the tears for real? Every time? Is there something fake about the performance? Is Matta a professional trauma survivor? But the re-enactment, I believe, is central both to trauma and to performance.
We speak of trauma only when the event cannot be processed and produces the characteristic aftershocks. Trauma, like performance, is always experienced in the present. Here. Now.
Trauma, studies show, lays down new memory tracks. Neuroscientists suggest that these paths are physiological as well as material, fixed in the brain as a specifically patterned circuit of neurons. Being in a situation can automatically provoke certain behaviors unless other memory tracks are laid down to replace them (Gallese 2007). A cue or trigger can suddenly send the mind back to another space and time that is experienced as viscerally and immediately present. The goal of various kinds of treatments, such as immersion therapy and Virtual Reality, is to gradually and carefully expose people to the place or thing that traumatized them until they can separate out the cue from the uncontrolled emotional onslaught. For people trapped in the stairwells of the falling World Trade Center, for example, stairs may take on a terrifying dimension that makes it difficult, if not impossible, for them to use stairs or even take elevators. Before too long, the hope is that they come to feel that the stairs are not in and of themselves dangerous or life threatening. Moreover, they may be able to access the memories of the day when they choose to, without being overwhelmed and disoriented by intrusive thoughts and feelings. The old cues no longer transport the person back to the traumatic injury.
For a survivor of torture, going back to the torture camp is a deliberate re-entry into a painful memory path. Memory, we know, is linked to place—one clear reason why that place needs not only to exist but to be marked for the violence to be acknowledged. For any guide, routine serves a mnemonic function—people can remember certain events by associating them with place (Abercrombie 1998). Through the recorrido, the act of walking, the body remembers. Matta, I believe, has been able to separate out some of the traumatic experiences from his daily life, choosing to encounter them and even allowing himself to feel them in safe settings such as these guided visits. These “tours,” then, give him a way to keep his past alive yet under control. A change in Matta’s routine might well change the affect. But routine also protects against unexpected affect—survivors can often recall some aspects of their torment and not others—there are some places (literally and physiologically) where no one dares to go.
For Matta, both victim and witness, trauma is a durational performance. His experience does not last two hours—it has lasted years, since he was disappeared by the armed forces. His reiterated acts of leading people down the paths characterize trauma and the trauma-driven actions to channel and alleviate it. As it does for the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, the ritualized tour offers him both personal consolation and revenge. Memory is a tool and a political project—an honoring of those who are gone, and a reminder to those who will listen that the victimizers have gotten away with murder. His tour, like the Mother’s march, bears witness to what gets spectacularized—a society in which judicial systems cannot bring perpetrators to justice—and what gets invisibilized—rapacious economic systems that disappear certain populations. Yet the walk-through, like the march, also makes visible the memory paths that maintain another topography of place and practice, not of terror but of resistance—the will not only to live but also to keep memory alive.
Matta, of course, has been instrumental in the building of the evidence—he has investigated and helped collect the information of what happened at Villa Grimaldi. He worked to preserve the space as a memorial site. He helped construct the model; he wrote and published the booklet, A Walk Through a 20th Century Torture Center. He has actively participated in creating the external material markers that designate this a “dark site.” He has even prepared for a visit without him present. The book maps out every move; the brutal images in the margins make visible every practice: “Here the torture began….” The book, given the nature of print media, tells the same story the same way every time. It outlines the path and numbers the stops—”here people were tortured with electricity….” The numbers in the book—like a tour guide—align with the map. Actually, it’s a double map—one layer shows the torture camp, while a semi-transparent layer of onion paper outlines the Peace Park, with the pavilion, the fountain, and the numbered places of interest: “storage of confiscated goods” and “sites for hanging.” A red dotted line outlines the recorrido exactly as Matta conducts it. This trace, then, is the trauma made visible in the archive, envisioned by Matta to outlast him and transmit meaning to those who come after to visit the space.
Being in the site with Matta, however, is a powerful experience—one of a kind for me even if it’s a repeat performance for him. What does Matta’s performance want of me as audience or as witness? What does it mean about witnessing and the quality of being in place? He needs others (in this case, me) to acknowledge what happened there and thus complete the task of witness. To witness, a transitive verb, defines both the act and the person carrying it out; the verb precedes the noun—it is through the act of witnessing that we become a witness. Identity relies on the action. We are both the subject and the product of our acts. Matta is the witness for those who are no longer alive to tell; he is the witness to himself as he tells of his own ordeal; he is a witness in the juridical sense—having brought charges against the Pinochet dictatorship. He is also the object of my witnessing—he needs me to acknowledge what he and others went through in Villa Grimaldi. The transitivity of “witness” ties us together—that’s one reason he’s keen to gauge the nature of his audience. Trauma-driven activism (like trauma itself) cannot simply be told or known; it needs to be enacted, repeated, and externalized through embodied practice.
Torture, of course, produces the opposite of witnessing—it silences, breaks personal and social bonds, and guts all sense of community and responsibility. Torture isolates and paralyzes both victims and bystanders, who are tempted to look away. I’ve called this “percepticide” elsewhere (Taylor 2007, 119). This is why regimes continue to practice torture even though they know that they receive no “actionable” information. It’s inaction they seek. My job, as I understand it, is to take action (maybe with a small “a”, as opposed to inaction), to acknowledge the violence generated by our governments, to follow Matta in his re-enactment, to make connections to the other events I know to be true, to write about the place, or donate money, or bring other people.
I wonder about aura and worry about voyeurism and (dark) tourism (Sion 2014). Is Matta my close-up—bringing unspeakable violence up as close as possible? If so, to what end? This, too, is multilayered in the ways that the personal, inter-personal, social, and political come together. When walking through Villa Grimaldi with Matta, the oversize issues of human rights violations and crimes against humanity—too large and general on one level—take on an immediate and embodied form. It enables us, to paraphrase Fredric Jameson, “to insert ourselves, as individual subjects, into an ever more massive and impersonal or transpersonal reality outside ourselves” (Jameson 1992, 54). In our everyday lives, we have no way of dealing with violent acts that shatter the limits of our understanding. We all live in proximity to criminal violence—and though some of us have felt it more personally than others, this violence is never just personal. This is the strength and weakness of this kind of memorialization—it’s so personalized and concentrated that it tends to focus just on the designated victims and space. But if we focus only on the personal trauma, we risk evacuating the politics. Standing there, together, bringing the buildings and routines back to life, we bear witness not just to the personal loss, but to a system of power relations, hierarchies, and values that not only allowed but required the destruction of others.
Matta, the booklet tells us, “feels a strong desire to transform history into memory.” He makes the past alive through the performance of his recorrido. Yet trauma keeps the past alive in Matta as well—the future is not an option for him as long as Terranova continues to call him to that place. The “future,” in fact, might be a very different project. In the best of all possible worlds, the future would mean turning this memory into history, the testimonial walk-through into archival evidence, Matta’s personal admonition into legally binding indictments against perpetrators, and visitors into witnesses, human rights activists, and voters. Someone else, maybe someone who has never been tortured, would lead the tour, with or without Matta’s guide. But that future is predicated on a past in which justice has been done and/or trauma transcended or resolved. That future is nowhere in sight, even though the arrow points us towards the fountain symbolizing “life and hope.” The tour does not offer us the end of traumatic memory or the end of performance. Looking downwards, we follow Matta as he negotiates this transitional space between remembrance and future project.