“But the unique and precious element which oral sources force upon the historian and which no other sources possess in equal measure (unless it be literary ones) is the speaker’s subjectivity.”
- Alessandro Portelli, “The Peculiarities of Oral History”
Oral history interviews have been used as research to be staged live in contemporary theater for decades as a genre of performance coined variously as Documentary Theater, Performing the Archive, Heritage Theater, and Living History. As part of this theatrical devising process, nationally acclaimed artists such as Anna Deveare Smith and the Tectonic Theater Company (creators of The Laramie Project) typically conduct the interviews, edit them into a script, recast original interviewees with professional performers, then re-stage the narrated events in a theatrical venue. During this process, writers, directors, and designers act as interlocutors and interpreters, placing themselves between the interviewees and the audiences, often obscuring how the original interview is mined for theatrical potential. The theatrical re-performance can thus be seen as eclipsing the inherently performative qualities of conducting oral history interviews, a process in which identities are created between the interviewee and interviewer, roles are assumed, a script is devised in the form of premeditated themes and questions, and a future audience for such stories is conceived.
How would these oral histories, and the politics that underwrite their production, be understood differently if those many layers of interpretation required by re-performance genres were eliminated? What if the inherently performative aspects and identities within the original interview were treated both as the primary source material and featured as a theatrical performance in and of itself? How can the narrative authority that is negotiated between the interviewer and interviewee be illustrated live, perhaps as a lesson in how these constructed identities mutually constitute each other? And can doing so lead to a deeper understanding of the power dynamics in the act of narration and transmission? Through an oral history Interview-Performance I conducted with my mother early 2022, I explore the performative, ethical and methodological potentials and implications of these questions while narrating topics of my own family’s lore and national identity during the early stages of the Cold War.
From 1944 to 1979, the United States government occupied the Marshall Islands, seizing the territory from Japan after the second World War and dispossessing the Marshall Islanders of their lands for use by the U.S. military as a strategic position in the Pacific. As part of the armament of the early Cold War, the US military detonated 67 nuclear bombs in the Marshall Island territories during this occupation. The ecological, medical, and cultural fallout of this imperialist, genocidal campaign drastically affects Marshall Islanders’ way of life to this day. As part of this occupation, my grandfather was stationed in the Marshall Islands with his young family from 1958 to 1961 performing embalmings for the Navy and inoculations on the Marshallese as an enlisted man in the medical corps for the military. In 2008 my mother restored several reels of super 8 films she discovered after my grandfather’s death. The reels contained jumbled home videos he took of the three years my family spent in the Marshall Islands during the occupation. My mother is my only living relative to appear in the footage who remembers the events, people, and places captured in home videos of a childhood spent amidst the backdrop of the catastrophic military campaign.
In autumn of 2020, as an MFA student in Studio Arts at University of Massachusetts Amherst, I began a project based on my mother’s accounts of the events depicted in my grandfather’s footage. Unable to separate my investments in the project as a daughter from those of an artist and oral historian, I consistently recited and re-performed my mother’s accounts of this time second hand, an approach that problematically collapsed the distinction between history, memory, narrative, and sentiment, and created false equivalencies between my and my mother’s relationships with the footage. While attending the VoCA Artists Interview Workshop in October 2021, a discussion about shared authority, transparency, and informed consent between interviewers and interviewees provoked me to deconstruct how my own subjectivities functioned within the mechanics of the oral history interview with my mother. I had been circling around what my mother’s story revealed about the footage and occupation, treating her testimony as a method of my research, until a trail became clear delineating her story as the actual object of my research with the footage as an accessory. If I wanted to define my mother’s authorship against my own and contend with the power and obligations each conferred upon us by our compounded roles in the project, I had to step back and let her speak for herself about her childhood during the occupation. The ethical imperatives central to the VoCA Artist Interview Workshop inspired rich and vexing questions about constructions of power within the narrative format of the interview, expanding the scope of my project far beyond the particulars of my family’s story.
The resulting 40-minute Interview-Performance took place on March 30th, 2022, before a live audience as part of a larger MFA Thesis Exhibition. I sat in front of a bare white wall facing the audience and used a small laptop to cue the large-scale projection of the super 8 video collage which appeared on the wall behind me. My mother appeared in a corner of the projected image via Zoom from California in the house where I grew up. I shared my screen with her so she could see the footage and respond to the video collage in time with the live audience.
The Interview-Performance is structured into four parts: Historical Positioning, Affective Positioning, Political Re-Imagining, and Direct Address, each previewed and approved by my mother. The first part features questions which offer an overview of the United States military occupation of the Marshall Islands, situating these events historically for an audience unfamiliar with this chapter of United States imperialist history. Meanwhile, a series of global and regional maps of the Pacific is projected on the wall behind me, racking focus towards the archipelago of the Marshall Islands to emphasize their specific location, geography, and topology. Next follows a digital slideshow of military photographs documenting the 67 nuclear bombs detonated there by the American military, offering an immediate way to imagine the scale of incomprehensible destruction forced on the Marshall Islands and the Marshallese. My mother’s straightforward exposition sets the stage for the introduction of my grandfather’s super 8 footage. While flickering images of our family assume the wall behind me, my questions home in on how my mother came to occupy the Marshall Island of Kwajalein herself from the ages 8 to 11 years old.
The second part of the interview drifts from the established historical narrative with questions that provoke my mother’s potent sense memories of her childhood in Kwajalein. The video collage supports this sensory shift with imagery that corresponds less to specifics of the interview and more with overall mood. Frame rates of the film are slowed, and interstitial shots of landscape are allowed to linger, emphasizing dreamy washes of beige sand and blue surf against an interminable Pacific horizon occasionally interrupted by aircraft carriers. My mother’s rich descriptions of bird calls and gravel underfoot allow the audience a first-person sensory bridge to her experience and loosen its authoritative grip as history. I ask my mother if she agrees with the statement “that her time in Kwajalein expanded her understanding of what was possible for her in life, motivating her to make choices that led to a better life for her and her children.” She agrees. I then ask if she’s ever felt guilty about her participation in the occupation or if she’s ever met a Marshallese person since the occupation. Her answer to both questions is “No.” This “No” marks the end of the formal interview.
Guided by the open-ended inquiry, “What if it happened a different way?” the third section of the Interview-Performance is an experiment in political and personal re-imagining which defies the logic of an oral history interview. I invite my mother and the audience to close their eyes and visualize prompts that I read out loud, starting with a convocation which untethers her memory production from chronological time: “You are 72 talking to me at 40 about you at 10, but your 10-year-old self doesn’t speak, you speak from several fluctuating coordinates that make any definitive location of this voice uncertain.” Each prompt that follows is written as if the listener is my mother in the past, urging participants to temporarily inhabit an imagined memory as her child self while also subverting the redemptive theme of her own narrative. In the following example, my mother’s fond memories of her time at the Kwajalein military base are rewritten with an opposite psychological effect:
“You are 10, the family lives on the island. Everything happened the exact same way except you hate it there: the military men intimidate you, the warnings about the missile testing make you anxious to leave the small cinder block dwelling, the conspicuous absence of Marshallese people from certain parts of the island makes the base feel like a movie set or a theme park and not a home…Something about the pretense fills you with dread. You move through the rest of your life with a simmering distrust of the world’s ability to provide for you. You don’t have children.”
During this portion of the interview, my mother is instructed not to speak while space is held for the audience to insert themselves into her experiences, either in the constructed memories or by imagining her experience in this moment of the live performance. The proposal of these alternate, perhaps even more believable, memories put forth by her interviewer-daughter undermine the determined trajectory and meaning she has assigned to her time in the Marshall Islands. By teasing at the narrative authority naturalized in the interview by her role as a historical witness, her instinct to auto-mythologize her role in the occupation, and its role in her, is exposed.
This exposure initiates the finale of the Interview-Performance. For 5 minutes I directly address the audience while my mother listens from the wall behind me. Scenes from my grandfather’s footage are spliced, disassembled, and juxtaposed on top of one another in abstracted layers, a visually rhythmic remix of everything my mother and I spent the last 40 minutes constructing into a historically, autobiographically, affectively legible but ethically untenable order.
“For my mother, her time as a child in Kwajalein is where she found a freedom which would carry through to me, and that narrative locates some of what we see in this footage as a montage of when and where her future began. This is my mom’s origin myth. It’s a powerful myth in my family.” Interview-Performance, Finale
According to my mother, the part of her life spent in Kwajalein is a story of feminist self-discovery which regretfully occurs during, but not because of, the imperialist occupation of a sovereign nation by her government. As narrator, interviewee, protagonist, and a mother, my mother, she cuts an empathetic figure before an audience, wielding what an audience is primed to accept as the authoritative take on this sequence of historical and personal events. The power inherent in the act of my mother’s narration directs one’s eyes, ears, and mind towards a central meaning, until the structure of the Interview-Performance transforms into a reflexive intervention on that power. As the interviewer, my influence becomes more pronounced in each section, shifting dynamics between myself, my mother, and her narrative of the occupation, asking the audience to actively revise their chain of identifications by demystifying her personal teleology.
A central lesson of the VoCA Artist Interview Workshop is that the role of an interviewer is never neutral despite best practices which attempt to constrain institutionalized and personal bias. In re-staged oral history performances, the audience is often asked to suspend disbelief about the interpretive processes of re-staging and the investments of each interpreter along the way. But what can blatant subjectivity show us that pretend objectivity cannot? The delamination of these narratives, both in video and in the expansion of my speaking role, directly challenges the experience and expectations of an audience conditioned by normative storytelling hierarchies in traditional oral history interviews, re-performed stagings, and in the everyday transmission of family lore. The imperial past is only in the past for those who can afford to historicize such narratives in tacit collaboration with an audience who validates the ideological staging of the story. In the Interview-Performance, my mother’s story becomes an enactive memory with sensual and dialectic dimensions circulating in an open, intersubjective loop between the bodies in the room, bringing her childhood memories and their personal and national progress narratives into the present as an urgent, present-day dilemma.
“The world is not inherently narrative, and I negotiate that as a storyteller and member of a species whose psychological success depends on our individual and collective ability to tease narrative out of a collision of events. Each negotiation relies on its own set of assumptions about how the world is supposed to nourish us.” Interview-Performance, Finale
Linear storytelling is mobilized into a political narrative via my mother’s account while her partial perspectives are revealed through a mother-daughter narrative tug-of-war. Repetitive manipulations of linear time within the video collage stand-in for what meaning remains uncapturable by my family’s archive of the occupation and its de-emphasis on the unspoken crimes to which they were wittingly and unwittingly party. The film footage is instrumentalized in my mother’s origin myth, a map of memory cues which become shortcuts for facts or evidence. It also provides a visual language and material for me to rework, dissolving those shortcuts. Through the Interview-Performance, the continued act of bargaining with one’s own complicity as a citizen of an imperialist nation-state is highlighted as the defining justification of my mother’s auto myth. I do this not to produce a referendum on my mother or her story, but to uncover an ideological set of storytelling norms shared as a part of American national identity. We each perform our own versions with similar contradictions and culpability due to a political grammar which attempts to exonerate American autobiographies from the crimes against humanity which afford them their narrative privileges and platforms.
In line with Haitian historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot, I believe that the ability to narrate is an exercise and affordance of power, constituting power itself. As such, narratives always require examination that is attentive to how they mobilize power, to what effect power is mobilized for within them and what silences are created by such mobilizations. Many of our American storytelling norms, interviews and theatrical re-stagings included, frequently work to obscure their mechanics of power. Without the artistic interventions that occur in parts two and three of the Interview-Performance, would audiences be otherwise subdued by the sentimental genre of mother-daughter quests, impulses to redeem a nostalgic archive, and the solemnity that surrounds accounts of traumatic events such that they might unquestioningly accept the embedded complicities of such a story? I consider the Interview-Performance a work in progress. Like the memories and genealogical circuitry which constitute the work and transmit it, each recirculation gathers new and scatters old assumptions about its final form. My mother remains a willing and game collaborator.
Cándida Smith, Richard. Introduction to Art and the Performance of Memory: Sounds and Gestures of Recollection. Edited by Richard Candida Smith. London: Routledge, 2002.
Parsons, Keith M. and Zaballa, Robert A. Bombing the Marshall Islands: A Cold War tragedy. Cambridge University Press Cambridge, United Kingdom; New York, NY 2017.
Pollock, Della. Introduction to Remembering: Oral History Performance. Edited by Della Pollock. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
Portelli, Alessandro. The Peculiarities of Oral History, History Workshop Journal, Volume 12, Issue 1, AUTUMN 1981, Pages 96–107.
Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. Silencing the Past : Power and the Production of History. Boston, Mass. Beacon Press, 1995.
A photograph taken from the corner of a dimly lit gallery with white walls and three track lights hanging from the ceiling spotlighting an art installation alongside each wall. The installation propped against the middle of the right wall contains a bowed brown wooden desk and a series of photographs above it. A row of twelve illuminated circular blue framed images are mounted alongside the back left wall. The installation closest to the camera is made up of a light brown table supporting an angled projector facing a freestanding screen on top of a square carpeted rug. A globe on a tall pedestal stands to the left of the rug and a large potted plant stands to the right. There is a tan bench near the center of the gallery.