Dorota Sajewska
Artur Żmijewski; Karol Radziszewski; Queer Archives Institute (QAI); Msza/Mass; re-enactment; body as archive; archive; original; copy; memory; performance; re-performance; documentation; performative repetition.

Contemporary art has been possessed by a fever of repetition. Artists coming from different fields compulsively reach for various strategies and media, enabling the reinterpretation and recreation of preceding events and works of art, as well as enabling the revision and reworking of (art) history itself. By means of repetition that is “at once a re-enactment and re-experiencing of a set of meanings already socially established,”1 they seek to find a gap in the dominant system, to break with the current social norms, with the politics of aesthetics, and with ritualised forms of power. The artworks, which strive to revive the past in order to actualise it in an affective relationship to the present and/or to the reimagined future, attempt to performatively rewrite the canon and destabilise the linear history, to undermine the uniqueness and singularity of the event and authorship, and to redefine the relationship between body and archive, original and copy. Reiterative artistic practices tend to transcend the clearly defined boundaries of genre and discipline (such as film, video, dance, theatre, and performance art) and often shine an inquisitive spotlight on self-archiving processes and the intermedial interdependencies within a work. In analysing these works, it becomes difficult to draw a solid line between artistic practice and aesthetic theory. For that reason, repetition-based works of art are suitable for studying the existing links between the arts and the discourses of (art) history and (art) theory.

One of the significant manifestations of the fever of repetition in contemporary art is the practice of re-enactment based on the repeated bodily action, which can be treated as an alternative strategy for preserving the seemingly ephemeral nature of performance as a time-based art.2 A similar function is fulfilled by re-enactment in dance, which is traditionally defined through its ephemerality and immediacy. Since the re-embodied material is the movement itself, primarily preserved in the bodies of dancers, the dance archive seems to be fragmentary in nature and is interpreted as the result of the translation of one medium (body) into another (notation, photo, recording). Thus, the dance re-enactment often redefines dancing as a reiterative cultural practice, emphasising the body itself as an archive.3 Re-enactment is also applied as a popular format in contemporary theatre in order to thoroughly revise and re-examine reconstructed situations and to reflect on the medium of theatre, which is defined at once as a medium of repetition and a production of the presence.4 Artistic practices based on repetition – such as re-enactments, reperformances, restagings, remixes – are open to critical reflection on the aspects of performativity that anticipate recording, storing, and transmitting an event (a performance). In this very way, contemporary performing arts itself – in practice and in the language of art – poses a series of fundamental questions that comprise the central interests of 1960s and 1970s performance art as well as avant-garde theatre and form the framework of today’s theoretical debates surrounding performance and documentation.

The practice of redoing is not only limited to performance-based art, but also encompasses film, video and installation art. The reperforming body in visual arts deals, above all, with the question of the visual documentation of corporality and with the performative repetition of the already experienced and already seen images. In this way, video artists adopt the basic structure inherent to re-enactments – raising the issue of the relationship between a live event and its reconstruction, between its presence and its remediation, between the body and an image, and between performativity and visuality. Strategies based on repetition occupy a crucial place in artistic reflection on the mechanisms of power and violence in order to expose the difference between the normative and subversive practices of repetition. The strategy of repeated bodily action can be used as a tool to reflect on the process of (re)constructing memory and/or (re)imagining a utopian future. The strategy of recoding sexual norms in order to achieve a drag effect of imitation, copying and simulation is applied by queer artists, who see in the re-enactment the possibility of revealing the failure of the heteronormative matrix. However, feminist artists strive to question the problem of the male original (also the original work of art) and to reveal the parricide of an oppressive system of power, ruled by the archival drive, which “posited itself to repeat itself and returned to re-posit itself only in parricide.”5 Dealing with the problems of documenting history and remembering the traumatic past, video artists often critically discuss repetition as a ritualised form of the legitimisation of power, forcefully exposing this aspect in the medial structure of the artwork and in their own violence as artists.

Strategies based on repetition in order to reveal the mechanisms of power and violence that also include the artistic process itself, occupy a key place in films of a Polish artist Artur Żmijewski. In his work 80064 (2004)6 Żmijewski decides to restore the identification number tattooed on the skin of 92-year-old Auschwitz prisoner Józef Tarnawa, treating the tattoo as a historical document and thereby – as the artist himself stated – “as an artifact in need of restoration.”7 The renewal of the camp number in a tattoo studio in the presence of the film director is structured as a re-performance of a violent bodily action, in which, significantly, the self-destructive gesture is delegated to others. The one body of the performer is split into the three bodies: the prisoner, the film director and the anonymous tattoo artist. Moreover, the mediation of the act of violence by video and the remedialisation of corporality (instead of a live action) show that the lust for violence is not only on the side of the artist and the perpetrator. It also reveals itself in the voyeuristic attitude of the viewer as a passive observer of the restaged scene of violence.

A radical understanding of reperformance is also strongly evident in Powtórzenie / Repetition (2005). This film documents Żmijewski’s efforts in Poland to repeat a psychological experiment conducted by Philip Zimbardo in 1971, whose aim was to expose the mechanisms of violence affecting prison inmates and which was prematurely concluded after seven days due to the brutality of the subjects’ reactions. Żmijewski’s project is at once a repetition, re-enactment, and continuation of the experiment in different social, cultural, political, and medial conditions. The fictional prison is fitted with one-way mirrors, five roving cameras operators, and several security cameras monitoring the inmates’ behaviour at night. Żmijewski continues exploring the issue of media spectacles’ impact on social behaviour in Msza / Mass (2011). In a response to the 2010 Smoleńsk air catastrophe which took the life of the Polish president, Żmijewski attempts to mimetically reconstruct a Roman Catholic mass onstage at Teatr Dramatyczny in Warsaw to create an inquest into the Catholic Church’s role in the Polish society and expose the deeply internalised mechanisms of a mass as a religious spectacle which itself is primarily based on the principle of repetition.

The interest in re-enactment and performative repetition among artists from diverse backgrounds and employing various media leads to the emergence of hybrid forms that defy traditional documentation practices, not to mention theoretical categorisation. The findings coming out of the ontology of performance, the anthropological conclusions on the regularity of repetition in human activity, the theories on the rituals of foreign and domestic cultures, the culturological interpretations of repetition within social behaviour, the philosophical ruminations on the subject of reiteration and on the performative or speculative character of discourse, the analysis of media and of techniques for recording and reproducing human activity and, last but not least, contemporary theories of archives – all of these today admittedly constitute reference points for reperformative practices in contemporary art. As contemporary transmedial and processual art crosses the lines of art discipline, the theory is also driven by these new artistic practices. That also leads to a transformation of already existing theories on re-performative practices.

In the light of contemporary theories of performance and performativity dealing with strategies of repetition in the visual and performing arts of the last twenty years, the experience of time has become a key experience. In her book, Performing Remains, Rebecca Schneider argues that re-enactment as an activity based on a performative repetition of history and its media leftovers, primarily deals with the complex entanglement of the participants of an (artistic) event in time. Re-enactment is “an activity that nets us all (re-enacted, re-enactor, original, copy, event, reevent, bypassed, and passerby) in a knotty and porous relationship to time.”8 According to Schneider, the return-based interweaving of time that takes place in re-enactment practices enables us to perceive in these actions an effective tool for questioning the Enlightenment model of time as progressing linearly: “In the syncopated time of re-enactment, where then and now punctuate each other, re-enactors in art and war romance and/or battle an ‘other’ time and try to bring that time – that prior moment – to the very fingertips of the present,”9 and also a means of critical reflection on the “academic memory industry.”10 From this perspective, the re-enactment as a performative act of reworking the past is a kind of epistemological practice, reflecting on various media and strategies of memory as well as an alternative to the traditional archive.

Reconstruction of the past, which is carried out by means of reperformances, is not tantamount to recollection or remembrance – the idea is to allow a past event to happen again, so that we can relive the past. Behind this approach there is a specific understanding of history as a “living history”, a history that cannot finally be completed, because it “carr[ies] forth in embodied cycles of memory.”11 Rebecca Schneider points to the incompleteness of the returns of the past in the present, to the fragmentary and residual forms of the existence of past events due to the impermanent nature of the field of memory-body settlement. Therefore, when speaking of remains, she means not so much material objects or documents, i.e., traditional archival remnants, but rather “as the immaterial labour of bodies engaged in and with that incomplete past: bodies striking poses, making gestures, voicing calls, reading words, singing songs, or standing witness.”12 Also the re-enactment itself, as a repeated event, leaves the remnants deposited in the body entangled “in a network of body-to-body transmission of affect and enactment.”13 In this perspective, the bodies of the participants in the re-enactment themselves become a kind of ruin, or rather, in a performative repetition, a living remnant of history. Describing the body in the midst of a repetition as a kind of proof of the death of someone long deceased, Schneider indirectly formulates a concept of the testimony of flesh, which finds justification and legitimisation in a (repeated) experience of an experience and not in historical truth and identification.

According to Schneider, this corporeal laboratory of bodies, engaged in repeated actions becomes antithetical to the normative, static institution of the archive which is defined as a space of selection, categorisation, classification and repression. Nevertheless, archiving itself is also a reperformative process – an act based on repetition, and highly connected to medialisation. In his Archive Fever, Jacques Derrida points out the interferences between repetition, the mediality of archiving techniques and their political implications: “There is no archive without a place of consignation, without a technique of repetition, and without a certain exteriority.”14 Should we think about contemporary art, which has been possessed by both the fever of repetition and archive fever, as a prosthetic extension of memory in the Derridian sense? Should it be treated as a manifestation of “a compulsive, repetitive, and nostalgic desire for the archive, an irrepressible desire to return to the origin, a homesickness, a nostalgia for return to the most archaic place of absolute commencement?”15 Or maybe as a manifestation of Wiederholungszwang, a pathological process in which the subject introduces itself, or is moved by unconscious drives, into situations from the past in order to repeat past experiences? Should we interpret the artistic emphasis on strategies of repetition as a form of repetition compulsion or maybe as a subversive act making it possible to think about art itself as a perverted form of an archive?

The emancipatory potential of both archiving and repetition is problematised in a very interesting way by the Polish painter and video artist Karol Radziszewski. In November 2015, Radziszewski founded the Queer Archives Institute (QAI), a non-profit organisation dedicated to the research, collection, digitalisation, presentation, exhibition, analysis and artistic interpretation of queer archives with a special focus on Central and Eastern Europe. This initiative is an effort to build an alternative type of archive of ancestors, among others, as a way of uncovering the peculiarities of queer culture’s history in communist countries under conditions of political oppression and cultural marginalisation. The QAI has been conceptualised as a project that relies on various media (audio, video, text and image, and material objects) and hybrid art forms (testimonials, staged interviews, mockumentaries, reperformances, exhibitions curated by the artist and self-published fanzines).

Radziszewski's documentary and archival practice lies at the intersection of art and theory, of artistic and institutional activities that historically and socially redefine the place of queer culture. The QAI is both a performative and a discursive project that explores the concept of the archive and at the same time questions it as a traditional institution that constructs the idea of the public sphere by storing selected documents. Radziszewski attempts to construct a queer archive on the basis of differentiated media remains, which represent the counterpart to traditional archive sources, by collecting partly self-produced documents, including filmed statements by contemporary witnesses as well as objects intended to prove the existence of queer culture in the former Eastern bloc. Radziszewski’s project is to be understood as a critical intervention into the public sphere with which the artist aims to build a kind of counter-archive in which what has been officially denied and rejected as part of collective history can find its place in the form of transgenerational and transcultural memory. I see the QAI, which explicitly plays with the political authority of the archive, as an attempt to reconcile Foucault's idea of heterotopia with Michael Warners' concept of the counter-public16.

The Institute is a queer project through and through, not only because of the subject, but also because of its unfinished, potential and processual character. One of the most important queer theorists, José Esteban Muñoz, writes in his book Cruising Utopia: “Queerness is not yet here. Queerness is an ideality. Put another way, we are not yet queer. [...] Queerness is also a performative [sic] because it is not simply a being but a doing for and toward a future.”17 Radziszewski's project points to the future and is based on the idea of potentiality. It is a project that should be realised performatively within the framework of further scientific-artistic actions and not find its final conclusion in the form of a traditional institution and its legitimisation in the normative reality.

The QAI is a logical and consistent element in Radziszewski's artistic practice, in which a turn toward the archival can be observed around 2010. The turn to the history of queer culture represents an essential turning point, because it enabled the artist to reflect on the performative production of testimonies, on the status of the body of the witness as a special document of the past, and as a medium of memory. In his works such as Kisieland (2009 to today), MS 101 (2012), America Is Not Ready For This (2011–2014) or The Prince (2014), working with the material to be archived proceeds differently in each case.18 It is based not least on a special appropriation of the documents – such as printed or audiovisual interviews, photos, recordings of performances – in the performative (re-)staging with the help of media repetition, the replay in a different constellation, by different voices and bodies, sometimes only by quoting and mounting in a new context. Radziszewski also likes to reflect on the possibilities of constructing alternative historical narratives through re-enactment strategies. In his works, he artistically problematises the archive as an institution exercising power; with deconstructive irony, he reveals its hierarchies, which privilege certain texts, voices and images and their interpretations, while erasing others. Radziszewski thus implicitly asks who can profit from archives and which rules apply. As a gay artist, he challenges the power of the Archon. Ultimately, he advocates the body as an alternative way of accessing history, as a living medium that can effectively resist the prevailing archive culture that is recognised as patrilineal.

Contemporary artists’ intensive exploration of the possibilities of intervening in archives through the use of repetition-based practices leads to experiments that straddle the line between body and archive. Striving for a performative reconstruction of events, images, and past situations with the aid of remains preserved in various media (and in archives) not only brings past events into the present but also, and above all, enables artistic reflection on the subject of how history is created and mediated, the mechanisms of remembering and forgetting, the status of source materials and accounts, the fictional nature of documentation, and the performative potential of archiving processes. Artistic works, oscillating between an obsessive interest in compulsively selective history and a creative approach to historical remains and documents, between attempting to connect bodily activity with memory work and striving for a loose game (verging on flippancy) with the remains of history, can be interpreted as a kind of artistic response to performative archive theory, while also amounting to a unique body of commentary on the subject of processual art. New artistic practices reveal art to be multiply-mediated, highly self-reflective, and self-ironic, as well as fragmentary, adroitly welcoming the processes of transformation, re-adaptation, and deformation thanks to operations performed on archival remains. In this, they reveal art itself to be a decentralised and fluid archive with potential for the creative profanation of history and theory.

The profanation of the archive could mean not only the recovery of this space for a common and free use, but above all the performative shifting of the archive as a normative institution. This movement could take place through inappropriate games and actions of trickery, consisting of a subversive repetition of the gesture of constructing the archive through the selection and assembly of remnants pushed to the margins of political life or completely removed from historical discourse. The emancipatory potential of the use of the archive understood in this way hides a field of action for artists who, in their practice, use strategies based on repetition. This kind of profanation of the archive by the language of art may be an attempt to effectively counteract the violence of the institution by restoring materiality, remnants and discontinuities of history. Since to profane means “to open the possibility of a special form of negligence, which ignores separation or, rather, puts it to a particular use,”19 and to experience the satisfaction from discovering the impossible, it is only the rediscovery of the autonomy of art as an experimental activity, enabling the perverse reuse of the institution of the archive that brings the promise of liberation of a new political power of art.

Dorota Sajewska
University of Zurich


1 Judith Butler, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution”, in Theatre Journal, Vol. 40, Nr. 4, 1988, p. 526.

2 The crucial reference point of such practices was a series of re-performances Seven Easy Pieces, presented by Marina Abramović in 2005 at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

3 See Mark Franko (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Dance and Reenactment (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).

4 See Milo Rau, Rolf Bossart, Wiederholung und Ekstase (Zürich-Berlin: Diaphanes, 2017), pp. 162–3.

5 Jacques Derrida, “Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression” in Diacritics, Vol. 25, Nr. 2, 1995, p. 60.

6 This work was prepared for “Auschwitz-Prozeß Ks 2/63”, an exhibition in Frankfurt am Main in 2004. Because of its radicality the video finally was rejected from the exhibition.

7 Porozmawiajmy o “80064”. Dialog między Agatą Araszkiewicz i Arturem Żmijewskim, online: [25.03.2018].

8 Rebecca Schneider, Performing Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Reenactment (London: Routledge, 2011), pp. 9–10.

9 Ibid., p. 2.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid., p. 32.

12 Ibid., p. 33.

13 Ibid., p. 100.

14 Derrida, p. 14.

15 Ibid., p. 57.

16 See Michael Warner, Publics and Counterpublics (New York: Zone Books, 2002).

17 José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia.The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York & London: NYU Press, 2009), p. 1.

18 Agata Adamiecka-Sitek, “Książę i kamera” in Didaskalia, Nr. 127−128, 2015, pp. 61−65.

19 Giorgio Agamben, Profanations (New York: Zone Books, 2007), p. 75.


Dorota Sajewska is professor for Interart Studies (Eastern Europe) at the Department for Slavic Studies, University of Zurich, and for Theatre and Performance at the University of Warsaw. Research focuses on cultural studies and historiography, performance studies, material aesthetics and anthropology. Necroperformance. Cultural Reconstructions of the War Body (Zurich: Diaphanes, Chicago University Press 2019). Leader of the SNF project Crisis & Communitas (

Suggested Citation

Sajewska, Dorota. 2020. “Re-Fever.” Sandra Frimmel, Tomáš Glanc, Sabine Hänsgen, Katalin Krasznahorkai, Nastasia Louveau, Dorota Sajewska, Sylvia Sasse (eds.). 2020. Doing Performance Art History. Open Apparatus Book I. DOI:


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