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Restaging In Order To Activate Living Memory

El siluetazo, Buenos Aires, 1983.

The disappearance of 43 students in the Mexican state of Guerrero on 26 September was denounced as unacceptable at a global level, with calls for the students to be brought back alive. In cities such as Toulouse and Sydney, this social demand was expressed through creative practices aimed at visibilising this necropolitical operation by the United Mexican States that resonates with the more than 20,000 cases of disappeared people in the country in the last eight years. The date chosen for this global action was deliberate: in the Judeo-Christian world, 1 November is the 'All Saints Day' or the 'Day of the Dead', and in Mexico it has very specific overtones. Through rituals that mix Christian and pagan elements, the celebrations call on the living to invoke the personal memories of dead relatives. In Mexico, as in other countries, this occurs through a festive process and a temporary break that entails the world upside down. In fact, the day of the dead is in itself a performative activation of memory in the relations between the living and the dead.

On 1 November this year, in the square opposite MACBA in Barcelona, a group of agents organised a siluetazo for the disappeared students. The action was a restaging of a key instance of the alliance between artists and human rights collectives in Argentina during the decline of the last dictatorship. The siluetazo of 21 September 1983 originated with a collaboration between Rodolfo Aguerreberry, Julio Flores, Guillermo Kexel and other artists, and the associations of the Mothers and Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo. By putting their bodies on the line to mark the presence of the absent bodies in public space, they demanded that the disappeared persons be brought back alive. The aim of the intervention was to fight oblivion and to represent the unrepresentable of forced disappearance. Flores said that the action was about 'giving demonstrations another possible form of expression and of persistence in time, creating a graphic instance that strikes the Government through its physical magnitude and formal deployment, and, through its unusual nature, renewing media attention and provoking coalescence.'

At around the same time in Chile, the lack of information about the whereabouts of his disappeared children led Chilean worker Sebastián Acevedo to set himself on fire in Plaza de Armas in the city of Concepción, taking the political and symbolic capacity of the body to the limit, and crying out for an urgent answer: the whereabouts of his children. His action led to the creation of the Sebastián Acevedo Movement Against Torture, based on the principles of non-violence, which activated public space in Chile by pointing out the sites of torture and disappearance. This movement is one of the foundational narratives of what would later become known as escraches or funas in Argentina and Chile in the nineties, and more recently in Spain in the hands of the PAH (Platform of People Affected by the Mortgage Crisis).

The action in Barcelona recovered this principle of 'putting the body on the line' for these other disappeared people, in a micropolitical activation of the square through collective action. Over 100 people participated in it, including researcher Nancy Garín, artists Jesús Arpal-Moya, Xara Sacchi, Mario Páez and Daniela Ortiz, and queer activist Beatriz Marcos Preciado, who adopted the name 'Marcos' as a trans appropriation of the fictional name of the Zapatista Subcomandante, who announced his retirement as leader and spokesman a few months ago. In the siluetazo, the gesture of the nuclear family at the centre of the Christian ritual of the day of the dead is replaced by strategies that suggest other ways of living and dying together. The collective construction activates the alliance between historical and current demands for the right to life of those who have been forcibly disappeared: 'they took them alive, we want them back alive'.

The connection between the demands of the past and the demands of the present was also the driving force behind a demonstration organised in Madrid by various social organisations on Sunday 26 October, a few days before the action in Barcelona. The slogan of the demonstration was Carabanchel: A centre for memory. Against the repression of yesterday and today. Between 1940 to 1944, the dictator Francisco Franco ordered a panoptic prison to be built in the neighbourhood of Carabanchel on the outskirts of Madrid, using Republicans as slave labour. The resulting building was knocked down six years ago, except for the adjoining health care centre. The march in October followed the path that the Republicans had taken when they carried the construction materials from the old Santa Rita Prison. The demonstration supported a new citizen and human rights alliance between the historical memory of the struggle against Francoism and the situation of today's migrants, who are locked up in Migrant Detention Centres for the administrative offence of lacking citizenship papers. These detention centres are simply new racist prisons. The former health care centre at Franco's panoptic prison is Madrid's new migrant prison. In addition –in an example of internal borders and everyday scare-tactics– the building is also the place where we migrants who live in Madrid have to go to renew our resident permits periodically: another form of the politics of terror. For this reason, republicans and migrant rights activists marched together, demanding the immediate close of the Detention Centre and the creation of a Centre for the Memory of the Fight Against Franco's Dictatorship in its place.

At the head of the demonstration, a group of migrants and republicans were joined by a rope tied around their necks. Each displayed a sign specifying the why they had been locked up in Carabanchel: the fight against Franco's dictatorship or the lack of citizenship papers. Like the long threads of colonial history, the rope joined vulnerable subjects linked by resistance to forms of repression.

These transhistorical and transnational alliances are certainly a micropolitical affront to the transhistorical and transnational alliances between capital and necropolitical terror. The fact that the global slogan for the 43 disappeared students in Mexico is 'We are all Ayotzinapa', and that the last post on this blog proposed the slogan 'We are all 12 October', inspired by the Haitian 'We are all black' is no accident. It is a sign of a collective need for the grassroots construction of alliances that make it possible to resist the abolition of rights, which goes beyond the recent economic crisis affecting the countries of southern Europe – the so-called PIGS –, and is actually a response to the continuing smooth operation of modern/colonial devices today, both at the structural level and in the everyday unconscious: they still affect our ways of life and our affects. The power of these new alliances to activate traumatic situations from the past and the present generates collective tools with which to fight the impunity of human rights violations through restaging, and to recover the living memory of those who have been forcibly disappeared.

Translated by Nuria Rodríguez

Movimiento contra la tortura Sebastián Aceveo in front of CNI (National Intelligence Centre), Santiago, Chile, 1980s. A group of 150 people - mainly nuns, priests and other church members protesting against the use of torture, outside the Calle Borgono 1470 on 18 October 1983. The banner says: "Aqui se tortura". The building is frequently cited in testimonies as being used as a secret detention centre where political suspects are taken for interrogation and torture by the Central Nacional de Informaciones (CNI - Chilean secret police).
Nancy Garín, Jesús Arpal-Moya and others in El siluetazo, Barcelona, 2014.
Daniela Ortiz with the ‘silueta’ of Antonio Santana, Barcelona, 2014.
Carabanchel: A centre for memory. Against the repression of yesterday and today concentration in front of the Migrant Detention Centre, Carabanchel, Madrid, 2014.
Posted 19 Nov 2014
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