How Masotta Was Repeated
Segunda Vez is a film and research project centered around the figure of Oscar Masotta (Buenos Aires, 1930, Barcelona, 1979), an author, psychoanalyst, and happenista. Segunda Vez uses the figure and work of Masotta to explore the intersections between performance, psychoanalysis, and politics, paying special attention to narrative strategies such as repetition and metafiction.
To tell the truth, I don’t exactly remember when was the first time I heard Masotta’s name. And so I have decided that the name first came to me during a conversation I had with the much admired Argentinian writer Ricardo Piglia, whom I met, after much anticipation, for a public conversation at the Universidad Torcuato Di Tella, Buenos Aires, in March 2014. Piglia mentioned Masotta in passing, as someone he thought might interest me since, like me, he was interested in performance, psychoanalysis, and politics.
A curious thing happened during that public conversation. As a token of admiration, I read to Piglia a passage from his novel Artificial Respiration, and he could not recognize his own writing. When I finished, he said something like: “Not bad what you just read. Did you write it?” The audience, overjoyed, clapped. Here’s the passage I read:
“Those letters? They are not addressed to me. I am not sure, sometimes, whether I perhaps am not dictating them myself. Nevertheless,” he said, “there they are, on that table, don’t you see them?” That bundle of letters—did I see them?—on the table. “Don’t touch them,” he said. “There is someone who intercepts the messages that reach me. An expect,” he said, “a man named Arocena. Francisco José Arocena. He reads letters. Just like me. He reads letters that are not addressed to him. Like me, he tries to decipher them. He tries,” he said, “like me to decipher the secret message of history.”
A few months later, when I learnt that Masotta had died in Barcelona, not far from my house, when I read some of his texts and saw that, yes, Piglia was right, he was the perfect intersection between performance, politics and psychoanalysis; and yes, when I learned that he treated performance (happening) as an act of transgression, and dematerialization as the thing to be done after Pop; then, yes, I thought I had intercepted something. A letter that was not meant for me but had nevertheless come my way, a found object, in the technical sense: I had not looked for it, but I did find it.
What followed from there was the usual process of study—meticulous, thorough— until we, for by this point it was not just me but a team that was working on this, were able to fill in an application for a grant, which we got and allowed us to make a film, gather texts for a book, create a website, translate some of Masotta’s texts … All to bring to the forefront Masotta’s work, which was totally unknown to us until a couple of years ago, and which we just happened to stumble upon, but which completely swept us off our feet …
I had decided from early on that an important part of the research work would go to filming three happenings Masotta had organized in October 1966. At that time, we had no documentation of them, no clear photographs, no films. There was only Masotta’s after the fact but very thorough and detailed descriptions of the happenings, or anti-happenings, all of which took place in October 1966. He describes and discusses El helicóptero (The Helicopter), Para inducir el espíritu de la imagen (To Induce the Spirit of the Image), and El mensaje fantasma (The Ghost Message) in “After Pop, We Dematerialize” and in “I Committed a Happening,” both published in 1967. Those descriptions would allow us to script the happenings and make them happen again. The idea was to get as close as possible to the original way of preparing, coordinating, and performing, and that means that we would make a documentary of the repetition of those happenings without rehearsing them, without the possibility of playing for the camera, without the possibility of redoing anything that might not seem right. And that is what we did.
In September 2015, we repeated El helicóptero as one of the opening events for Tabakalera, a new art center in San Sebastian, Spain. There was a real audience of about eighty to a hundred people, an actress, a helicopter pilot, stewards and stewardesses to lead the audience, a drum player, a theater, an open landscape. It happened.
Later on, when Cloe Masotta, Oscar Masotta’s daughter, found some original pictures of the original happenings in Buenos Aires, it was uncanny to see how closely they resembled the images taken in San Sebastian almost fifty years later.
In June 2016, and with the support, advice and help of the Universidad Torcuato Di Tella, we repeated one of Masotta’s most controversial happenings, Para inducir el espíritu de la imagen. It consisted of confronting a contemporary art audience with a group of twenty “old” lumpen proletarians who were played by actors and who stood—under a violent white light and the shrill sound of an electronic soundtrack—facing the audience for one hour. It happened—even if the electronic soundtrack was rather pleasant: composed for the occasion by artist Jan Mech, it was actually re-invented, taking into account the time (1966) of the original electronic composition, because we have no notion of how the original one sounded. And even if the white light, due to technical limitations at Torcuato Di Tella, was far from violent. Still, it happened. And, to our surprise, it produced a pretty negative response from the audience: some thought it was too violent, others that it was not violent enough, and some thought we were profiteers who came from “the Metropoli” to suck dry Masotta’s memory like vampires—even though, for decades, no one had done much about Masotta or, and especially, about his artistic work. Ultimately, though, the big question was: why repeat Masotta?
In French, the word repetition means rehearsal as well. Allan Kaprow, when he introduced the format that would be known as happenings—something that happens, a “new art form involving ordinary people, ordinary time, and everyday spaces”—warned us about the impossibility of repeating a happening. Kaprow’s main problem with repetition is that it immediately smacked of “art,” in the sense that repetition “improved” a performance, and for him a happening/performance was, precisely, an action that could not be repeated or perfected. He says: “Perform the happening once only. Repeating it makes it stale, reminds you of theatre and does the same thing as rehearsing: it forces you to think that there is something to improve on. Sometimes it’d be nearly impossible to repeat anyway—imagine trying to get copies of your old love letters, in order to see the rain wash off those tender thoughts. Why bother?” Kaprow equates happening with reality. It is not fiction, and as such, cannot be repeated: reality does not repeat itself.
But if we had to repeat it, how identical to the original can, or should, that repetition be? If the repeated action is staged in a theatre, which is a representational, protected environment, what are the possibilities for changes, for unforeseen elements to change the performance? And if the action is not staged in a theatre but happens instead in a public or semi-public space, what are the possibilities for identity and change in that case? We are tempted here to go pre-Socratic and say with Heraclitus: “No man can step into the same river twice.”
How about scripted actions? How about repetition in relation to a protocol or a score? Could we still speak of original and repetition then? We could say that all performances of a musical score are equally original iterations of that piece, and no performance is more “real” or “authentic” than another one: the piece only exists when it is performed, there is no original that is repeated. A score is written thinking of endless activation, of endless repetitions that never quite fully coincide with each other.
What about a text as a score? That is what we dealt with here: Oscar Masotta’s description of a situation, Para inducir el espíritu de la imagen, in “I Committed a Happening.”
A situation, according to Guy Debord, is something that can be repeated and yet is also unique. “What is a constructed situation?” Agamben asks, and proceeds to answer it as follows: “A definition contained in the first issue of the Internationale Situationniste states that this is a moment in life, concretely and deliberately constructed through the collective organization of a unified milieu and through a play of events.” Agamben disconnects the idea of “constructed situation” from the dialectic between art and life that governed avant-garde movements of the twentieth-century, thus detaching “constructed situation” from the realm of “art,” that is, of “aestheticism.” He keeps using the two terms of the dialectic, art and life, construction and life, a dialectic that is also at play in the expression, “constructed situation,” which combines two opposites: “construction” and “situation,” life and art, fiction and reality. Debord’s concept of situation, as described by Agamben, is interchangeable with the concept of happening as described by Kaprow: something that can be repeated and yet is also unique.
Following Agamben’s discussion of Guy Debord, repetition is not the return of the identical, since it is not “the same as such that returns”; what returns is “the possibility of what was.” Repetition “restores the possibility of what was, renders it possible anew.” Memory, Agambem suggests, is what “restores possibility to the past”: by making repetition possible, by allowing the perception of something present as past, and, inversely, the perception of the past as present: déjà vu and haunting.
Similarly paradoxical are Kierkegaard’s reflections in Repetition (1843), whose title in Danish, Gjentagelsen, literally means “the taking back.” In Kierkegaard, repetition relates to movement. Repetition (taking back, movement) and recollection (anamnesis, the recollection of past lives, memory, standstill) are the same movement, but in opposite directions, for what is recollected has been, is repeated backward, whereas real repetition is recollected forward. Memory moves backward and repetition moves forward, the past of recollection and the now of repetition. Repetition is a paradoxical term: “that which is repeated has been, otherwise it could not be repeated; but precisely this, the fact that it has been, makes repetition something new.” This means that the privileged now has always already been (past), and what has been could always become (future). Repetition is a nonconcept of “a strange instantaneous nature, it is this something patched between movement and standstill and that, following logic, does not exist in any given time.”
Coming down to simpler language: a text as score. When we re-constitute a situation (call it repetition, re-enactment, activating, replaying, or, simply, performing), what kinds of tools do we use? Most probably, a written protocol, like a score or a script, which precedes (perhaps) the situation and guides it, or a description that is subsequent to the situation it describes. Sometimes, it is hard to tell what is what when it comes to this “historical input”; famously, the most accurate and complete description of Kaprow’s 18 Happenings in 6 Parts is the work of someone who never saw the performance.
However, we could say that this written information is the spine of the repetition, the part that (perhaps?) stays identical, and upon which we might practice an exegesis, an interpretation, an adaptation. This written information may be what Kierkegaard means by memory (standstill, recollection), which he distinguishes from repetition (action, forward movement).
And the act of interpreting this written information is already a “placing in the present,” a “today,” since we are interpreting now. This interpretation will inevitably be different from one we might have made five years ago and from that of others fifty years ago. But we are not repeating yet; we are just reading.
As Borges used to say: if you tell me how people will read in the future, I will tell you what kind of literature will exist in the future. This is obvious, of course: by the act of reading (interpreting, understanding) we make present, and therefore we definitely modify that piece of memory that is the score, the protocol, or the description.
One could say, pushing it, that the act of interpretation/reading places the situation-to-be-repeated in a no-time, an achronic moment, almost a mythical time. Where each act of interpretation/reading/adaptation makes everything present again, where death does not exist …
Except: this reading projected towards a repetition does not happen in a vacuum. Next to the written protocol (memory), and to interpretation (placing in the present time, we and now), we have the actual action of repetition, the action repeated (forward movement, according to Kierkegaard). And the action repeated happens within a historical and social frame, where author, participants, audience, or captive audience, belong. This historical and social frame has something to do with class, economics, education, the current political state of things, language, place, and generally speaking, context. How much of this do we let enter into our repetition? Can we even control that?
And how does all this—past (memory), no-time-eternal-present (reading), future (repetition)—affect the “original” piece, how does it modify the source? And is this good for “the source”?
One would guess it is good. As artists, we dream that our books will be read, our theatre pieces and choreographies performed, our music played: we want to affect the future. And we want our work to be transformed by the future, that is to say, we want it to remain present. There is no greater compliment than what Fritz Senn said of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake: “we are still trying to be Finnegans Wake’s contemporaries.”
Maybe we are still trying to be Masotta’s contemporaries.
To read Freud. In his 1914 text “Remembering, Repeating and Working Through,” Freud argues that repeating happens instead of remembering. The purpose of the repetition is to make the traumatic event that we refuse to remember happen again and again, so that it exists in a protracted present.
Repeating is a form of making present, of making something happen again.
So repetition is a form of catharsis—this is well-known, of course. And also of atonement. Or of repair. How many thousands of years are behind this idea? A wrong happened and must be set straight. We re-play it on our mind, a moviola with which to repair the wrong. Here we have haunted houses, ghosts, penitents, punishments, penalties, penances. Poetic justice too: the justice that did not happen in history can at last happen now, in fiction. Fiction can happen as a place of atonement for reality. Yes, fiction as a sort of heaven for the hell of reality.
At the heart of the famous esprit d’escalier. This French expression, commonly used in English as well to describe the experience of thinking of a good or witty comeback only when it’s too late, pinpoints the desperate desire to replay the situation so as to make it possible for us to deliver the witty, crushing, comeback we have just thought of. And, of course, to punch back the one who deserved to be punched, to take back the awful remark that broke a relationship, to say a proper farewell to someone we know now we will never meet again. Repetition, playback, repair wrongs, pay debts, give what’s due.
This is all true, but the concept of psychoanalysis we are going through refers, rather, to a form of the return of the repressed. Yes, this wonderful concept. The more a memory is repressed, making its recall impossible, the more aggressively it finds its way out by means of the compulsive repetition of an action. In this case as well, repeating is a form of making present, of making something happen again. The greater the resistance to remember, the more violent the compulsion to act out, so that repetition replaces memory.
Segunda Vez. Second Time Around. Déjà vu. In monotheistic religions, the Second Coming (Parousia) is the sign for the end of times. The prophecy of the Second Coming is as well a cancellation of chronology. Each moment is the moment of the Messiah’s arrival: it has happened already, it has been prophesized, it is caught in an eternal loop of happening again.
Nietzsche puts it this way in 1881: “And in every one of these cycles of human life there will be one hour where, for the first time one man, and then many, will perceive the mighty thought of the eternal recurrence of all things: and for mankind this is always the hour of Noon.”
But since, according to what we said when discussing psychoanalysis, the ritual acting out of the myth (or the repetitive acting out of the forgotten memory) implies a reactualization of that primordial traumatic event, then it follows that the actor, the one who acts, is magically projected in illo tempore: he or she becomes contemporary with the myth/the forgotten memory. It is not a return to the past but, rather, a projection into a moment of a strange instantaneous nature, patched between movement and standstill and that, following logic, does not exist in any given time.
A suspension of time: that is how Masotta was repeated. This repetition—as we shall see in a future publication—comes from a desire to restore a memory that has been (a little) forgotten: Southern Conceptualisms in exile on the eve of a political catastrophe (Argentina 1976-1982).
 “One year ago, Allan Kaprow referred to us as a country of happenistas, even though, up to that date, express manifestations of the genre had barely existed in Argentina.” See Oscar Masotta, “Prólogo to Happenings,” in Listen, Here, Now! Argentine Art of the 1960s: Writings of the Avant-Garde, ed. Inés Katzenstein (New York: MoMA, 2004), p. 180.
 Ricardo Piglia, Artificial Respiration, trans. Daniel Balderston (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1994), p. 44.
 In the framework of the exhibition Moving Image Contours: Points for a Surrounding Movement, curated by Soledad Gutiérrez and Anna Manubens.
 Allan Kaprow, “How to Make a Happening,” available at http://www.primaryinformation.org/product/allan-kaprow/
 Giorgio Agamben, Means without End: Notes on Politics, trans. Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), p. 78.
 Giorgio Agamben, “Difference and Repetition: On Guy Debord’s Films,” in Guy Debord and the Situationist International, ed. Tom McDonough (Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 2002), p. 315-16.
 Søren Kierkegaard, Repetition, in Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs, trans. M. G. Piety (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 19.
 Arne Melberg suggests that repetition is a “nonconcept,” since it exists only in what Constantine Constantius (i.e., Kierkegaard) describes as a state of “nonbeing,” and that makes the link to the passage from Plato’s Parmenides just cited. See Arne Melberg, “Repetition (In the Kierkegaardian Sense of the Term,” in Diacritics 20/3 (Autumn 1990): 75.
 I would like to thank Nora Joung for pointing out the relevance of Jorge Luis Borges’ short story, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” to this project. And I feel that the following passage is especially pertinent, in several senses, to the repetition of the happening Para inducir el espíritu de la imagen, and so deserves to be cited at length:
“It is a revelation to compare the Don Quixote of Pierre Menard with that of Miguel de Cervantes. Cervantes, for example, wrote the following (Part I, Chapter IX):
… truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counselor.
This catalog of attributes, written in the seventeenth century, and written by the ‘ingenius layman’ Miguel de Cervantes, is mere rhetorical praise of history. Menard, on the other hand, writes:
… truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counselor.
History, the mother of truth! —the idea is staggering. Menard, a contemporary of William James, defines history not as a delving into reality but the very fount of reality. Historical truth, for Menard, is not ‘what happened’; it is what we believe happened. The final phrases—exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counselor —are brazenly pragmatic.” See Jorge Luis Borges, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” in Collected Fictions, trans. Andrew Hurley (London: Viking Press, 1998), p. 94.
 “Menard has (perhaps unwittingly) enriched the slow and rudimentary art of reading by means of a new technique—the technique of deliberate anachronism and fallacious attribution. That technique, requiring infinite patience and concentration, encourages us to read the Odyssey as though it came after the Aeneid, to read Mme. Henri Bachelier’s Le jardin du Centaure as though it were written by Mme. Henri Bachelier. This technique fills the calmest book with adventure. Attributing the Imitatio Christi to Louis Ferdinand Céline or to James Joyce—is that not sufficient renovation of those faint spiritual admonitions?” Borges, “Pierre Menard,” p. 95.
 The network Southern Conceptualisms is an international platform for collective production, reflection, and setting in common of a political position. It was founded in late 2007 by a group of researchers concerned with the need for a political intervention into those processes that have sought to neutralize the critical potential of a set of conceptual practices that had taken place in Latin America in the 1970s. See more at: https://redcsur.net