Doubling Down on the Spectacle: The Performative (After)Lives of Feminicide Photography in Mexico

Aline Hernández

Content Note: Images of gendered violence appear below in this article.

On July 15, 2021, the feminist colectiva ‘Hijas de la Sandunga’ carried out a one-day performance in different points of Tehuantepec, a city and municipality located in the southeast of the Mexican state of Oaxaca. Coordinated with the photographer Andrea Murcia, the performance consisted of several reenactments of feminicidal scenes staged in emblematic locations, such as the railway of the Tehuantepec Isthmus, or underneath the 22’ high steel statue known as La Tehuana.1 In addition to these locations, the collective also staged scenes of violence in other peripheral areas where bodies of feminicide victims are usually dumped. Wearing black and blue jeans and with their bare torsos inscribed with slogans such as ‘Tehuantepec Feminicida’ [Feminicidal Tehuantepec], ‘Vivas nos Queremos’ [We want each other alive], and ‘Mi Cuerpo, Mi Decisión’ [My body, my choice] the performers went as far as to place themselves inside bloodstained, transparent waste plastic bags, thus forcing their viewers to come into close contact with what they would otherwise turn away from or see by lurking from a safe distance. Resorting to an overt language of provocation by appropriating and redeploying dominant forms of representation of feminicide, the colectiva’s performance sought to contest the impunity and normalisation of feminicide and demand measures be taken to prevent and eradicate the violence.2

This reenactment is not sui generis; activists regularly incorporate them in political demonstrations against feminicide. Premised on intense exaggeration and excess, the interventions often occur in public spaces ripe with symbolic significance, such as plazas, or in front of government buildings. In this text, I argue that these reenactments must be approached as a form of ‘vigilant gestural repetition’ aimed at contesting the dehumanizing logics of display in Mexican feminicide photography.3 Here, feminicide photography is defined as a photographic work that documents the physical appearance of feminicide victims and the general conditions of the crime scene.  Foregrounding the intersections, differences, and negotiations between normative photographic representations of feminicide and its feminist counter-representations, I will show how this practice of aesthetic activism reveals the material ramifications of photojournalism of the violence, which hardens and amplifies the state’s regulatory necropolitical framework around feminicide and its subjects.

© Andrea Murcia. Digital Image. Cuarto Oscuro. Agencia Mexicana de Fotoperiodismo, 2021.

In Context: Necropolitics of Gender in Mexico and Feminicide Photography

Feminicide, understood as an extreme and systemic form of gender-based violence against feminized bodies, founded in Mexico on a necro-patriarchal power structure, constitutes one of the most widespread human rights violations in the country.4 According to official figures, between 1992 and December 2020, an estimated 60,000 killings have been reported in the country. Furthermore, approximately 10 to 11 cis, transgender, and gender-variant womxn are killed every day with gruesome levels of violence. Since the 1990s, when feminicide violence flared up in Ciudad Juárez, a city located in Chihuahua that borders with El Paso, Texas in the United States, photography has played an influential role in shaping public perception around feminicide. As early as 1993, it was possible to find photographic documentation of the violence reproduced in several local newspapers of the state of Chihuahua. Later, as the news of feminicides travelled outside Ciudad Juárez and as this kind of violence spread beyond the border city, the tendency to reproduce explicit photographic documentation of feminicides was incorporated by editors of broadsheets, journalistic magazines, and sensational newspapers within the rest of the Mexican states.

Vis-à-vis the state’s efforts to erase the murders from ‘official public memory’, it is unsurprising that feminicide photography assumed such a force.5 The lengths to which local governments have gone to impose a culture of silence through misinformation campaigns, stigmatization, and harassment have been well documented.6 In this context, many photojournalists valued photography for its ability to condense and bring into view the most brutal aspects of violence. Photographers such as Lucio Soria and the late Julián Cardona have, for instance, made a case for how reportorial practices documenting the harsh reality of the border were both critical and necessary. By emphasizing photography’s capacity for historical disclosure and evidential powers, they ask us to reconsider the possibilities that the exhibition of violence offers for bringing back the political in a context where necropolitics has become the central paradigm of life.7 

While in principle, Juárez photographers’ efforts to put photojournalism towards more progressive ends seem right, in practice, the viability of such a project is highly questionable, namely because of the incompatibility of the visual codes they are putting forward with the culture of reception. This omission is, of course, not without precedents. As Allan Sekula reminds us, ‘photojournalists like to imagine that a good photograph can punch through, overcome its caption and story, on the power of vision alone’.8 Underlying this assumption is a belief of photographic meaning as straightforward and transparent. The problem, as has been noted by contemporary theorists of photography, is that the meaning of photography is not determined from within the photograph (nor is liable to photographers’ intentions) but negotiated in the ‘stream of social life’.9 Furthermore, as Abigail Solomon stresses, it is often the case that the larger context is ‘far more politically, socially, and culturally determining than the imagery itself’.10 

In line with the above, I would argue that in Mexico, the ideologically saturated discursive field that has surrounded feminicides since the 1990s has neutralised, to a significant extent, the political potential for feminicide photographs. The murder of women in Ciudad Juárez was accompanied by a range of stigmatising raced, gendered, and classed narratives that emphasised feminicide victims’ objectionable social status and supposed lack of moral value. In politicians’ discourses, victims were portrayed as so-called ‘public women’ leading double lives by working in the maquilas during the day and as ‘prostitutes’ at night, or linked to drug-related trade.11 In this sense, the presence of dead bodies in marginal spaces, the excessive marks of sexual brutality, and the way the women were dressed became indisputable ‘ideological and contextual coordinates’ deployed to substantiate feminicide victims’ disposability and justify their deaths.12 

These knowledge practices have had a structuring presence in how feminicide photographs are read and received; they constitute what John Roberts calls the ‘prereflective formation’ of spectators.13 Indeed, if within the differential strictures of necro-patriarchal law, femicide victims are considered as less-than-human, as lives that can be exterminated without any punishment based on victims’ particular forms of embodiment, as well as the spatiality within which they emerge, photographic representations enter into this equation as ratifications of what is there. In other words, it is extremely hard to disarticulate dominant discourses from what is shown in photographs, and, as it turns out, feminicide photography ends up lending ‘symbolic support’ to the processes of dehumanisation of feminicide bodies.14

In the Image, a Double: (Re)Performing Feminicide Photography

The pressing task for feminist activists and artists has therefore become how to carve out counter-representational spaces that allow for a critical interrogation of the regulatory norms that prescribe how feminized bodies matter in México and how these norms get reworked in and through representational practices. Cognizant of the perils of direct forms of representation of feminicide violence, many artists have opted for exploring alternative mechanisms of representation by documenting, for instance, scenes of loss, grief, and mourning. In the practices analysed here, however, activists hold on to that which we are most familiar with, namely photographs of feminicide violence, and attempt to contest their normative doings immanently. The question thus arises: If feminicide photographs represent key sites through which necro-patriarchal gendered, racialized, and classed exclusionary norms embedded in discursive practices get (re)consolidated, what does it mean, then, for activists to reenact feminicidal photographic scenes?

Traditionally, reenactment references a form of historical revival that attempts to holistically recapture the past for its participants to experience it in the here and now. According to Cristina Baldacci, even though a certain investment in bringing back history lingers within artistic practices, ‘unlike the act of restaging that attempts to replicate the original event as faithfully as possible’, reenactment as an art form ‘constitutes an interpretative gesture that never produces repetition but seeks instead to give the images new values, meanings, and configurations’.15

In line with Baldacci, the feminist reenactments of feminicide photography must be approached not as an attempt to reframe the past in the present but as in-bodied gestural acts seeking after interpretative shifts in our readings of feminicide. Indeed, as Lorena Fuentes has argued, the problem with images of feminicide is not so much that the violence is ‘passively seen’, but instead how it is ‘read’, and, correspondingly, how bodies are ‘coded [and] performatively brought into [discursive] regimes of recognition, differentiation, or occlusion’.16

© Artemio Guerra Baz. Digital Image. Cuarto Oscuro. Agencia Mexicana de Fotoperiodismo, 2017.

The body staged remains essential to this critical endeavour. It is deployed as a vehicle to lay bare the otherwise hidden raced, classed, and gendered assumptions around feminicide and the bodies of violence while simultaneously channelling counter-discourses—discourses that hinge on the role of the state, structural exclusions, and sociocultural norms in the reproduction of feminicide. This use of the body as the stage is not coincidental. As Rebecca Schneider notes, the body-made-explicit has been at the centre of much feminist performance art since the 1960s. According to Schneider, such ‘explosive literality’ has been precisely utilized to ‘explicate bodies in social relation’.17 Interestingly, however, where the body made explicit already implicates a fleshy excess, in the case of the feminist reenactments this excessive literality is driven to its utmost consequences. 

As may be apparent from the description I provided at the introduction of the text, the visceral aesthetics stand out when analysing artistic reenactments of feminicide photography. Crucially, the activists show no interest in bestowing their audience with accurate in-bodied renditions of photojournalistic representations of the violence. Departing from any forms of literal precision—albeit retaining some degree of likeness—the activists render themselves instead into an inordinate image of a violated body. A telling example of this can be seen in a reenactment staged in April 2017 in el Estado de Mexico by local activist organisations. The intervention consisted of two participants recumbent on the adjacent plaza to the Instituto Electoral del Estado de Mexico. Their bodies, in this case, were only partly visible. Half-covered with a white sheet—thus emulating a crime scene—the audience could only see their limbs and heads. Furthermore, the activists also poured ‘blood’ onto the sheet and the participant’s clothes, producing a daunting scene that stirs up uncomfortable feelings. Lying there for an extended period, they closed their eyes, deliberately avoided any exchange of glances that could potentially provide a moment of respite for the audience. 

© Artemio Guerra Baz. Digital Image. Cuarto Oscuro. Agencia Mexicana de Fotoperiodismo, 2017.

Alongside the use of props, activists have also devised other formal strategies of overabundance to heighten and intensify feminicidal violence visually. Telling among these is the multiplication of dead bodies on stage. A good example of this strategy can be found in an earlier performance organized by students and members from social organisations in March 2011. The collective action involved around 20 participants lying outside the house of representation of the state of Mexico located in the upper-class neighbourhood of Lomas de Chapultepec in Mexico City. Here too, the activists prevented the audience from making any visual contact with the performers by keeping their eyes closed during the totality of the action. Furthermore, many of the activists painted bruises across their bodies. Behind them, stood a group of women holding a pink banner reading ‘¡NO MAS VIOLENCIA! SI LE PEGAN A [email protected] LE PEGAN A [email protected] [No more violence! If they target one, they us target all]. Likewise, among the participants another banner was arranged that read ‘NO + FEMINICIDIO. NO + VIOLENCIA. ¡YA BASTA! [No more feminicides. No more violence. Enough is enough].

© Saúl López. Digital Image. Cuarto Oscuro. Agencia Mexicana de Fotoperiodismo, 2011.

Clearly, the activists not only withheld from offsetting the unwelcoming effects of the performance, but they deliberately ‘prick and wound’ them (to borrow Roland Barthes’ famous words).18 Something about Franko B’s performance I Miss You! that Jennifer Doyle notes also applies here: the aggressive and spooky character of the intervention is not only constructed by the sight of blood or living corpses. While this certainly remains a crucial aspect, in my view, its excessive nature is also forged through ‘the refusal of a redemptive gesture’.19 I would argue that this refusal is deployed, in this case, to thwart empathic identification with the scene of suffering. 

That is, activists are not trying to merely ‘reach’ or ‘touch’ emotionally detached viewers by hyperbolically re-presenting ‘humanity’s violated dignity’—a move which can arguably allow extending humanity to the bodies undone by feminicide.20 Instead, I would venture to say that they are after something far more ambitious: to disrupt the necropolitical sensibilities that demarcate the boundaries of what is (un)recognizable and (ill)legible as (a body of) violence. In other words, they are trying to undermine the existing ‘distribution of sensibility’ which works to normalize the violence done to particular bodies marked as worthless within the existing social order by inducing in their viewers a form of sensible shock. In reenactments of feminicide, we find that this sensible shock is achieved by deploying abjection and exaggeration through choice of form. Accordingly, the purpose of this is not so much to raise awareness, but to double down on the spectacle of feminicide. Indeed, if the pressing issue in these performances is how spectatorship is constructed to obscure and normalize feminicide violence, both abjection and exaggeration can be read as aesthetic-political strategies deployed to challenge the complex interplay between viewing and doing violence.

© Saúl López. Digital Image. Cuarto Oscuro. Agencia Mexicana de Fotoperiodismo, 2011.

It is worth noting that even if the affective mobilization of audiences plays such a crucial role in the initial stages of reenactments of feminicide, activists also demand from their viewers to recalibrate what is seen; or, indeed, to pursue critical ‘re-readings’ that disrupt the differential frames of recognition and logics of exclusions that produce women’s bodies as killable and disposable. The activists do this by transferring images of feminicide from mainstream media sources towards social spaces of power. Presenting images in symbolic spaces of power such as the monuments prompts associations between the symbolic dimension of violence and its systemic dimension. Likewise, as seen in the reenactment staged outside the house of representation of the state of Mexico, occasionally activists also resort to including banners to further instigate the political signification of the staged scenes. In this way, they invite a shift in focus, away from a vista of harm towards the structural conditions, thus challenging individualized accounts of feminicide. 

This invitation becomes more markedly visible towards the end of the performances (which is also when the performances most explicitly approach the medium of photography). As it might be clear from the descriptions provided above, when the actions reach their conclusion, the participants do not leave the scenes, but linger instead on the stage motionless, evoking a stillness that is characteristic of photography. This gesture allows for the intensity that they progressively built up to stabilise and, with this, a zoom-out effect of sorts occurs.  This is because the performers no longer solicitate viewers’ gaze with such fervour. The audience can then move from the discrete image and look around—or transition from the order of presence towards the order of representation—which facilitates the conditions for them to embark on an interrogation and tie-in the proposed associations between the context of the performance and the performance. 

André Lepecki suggests something similar regarding the production of still-acts in dance. Building on the work of Nadia Seremetakis, he writes: ‘The “still act” is a concept (…) to describe moments when a subject interrupts historical flow and practices historical interrogation’.21 For her part, Seremetakis says that ‘Stillness is the moment when the buried, the discarded and the forgotten escape to the social surface of awareness like life-supporting oxygen’.22 Both then foresee how suspension in live acts can be a productive source for increasing the complexity of what we see. In the case of reenactments of feminicide, by incorporating stillness, the activists succeed in opening a time and space for carrying out a more politicized reading of events, for delving in the complex substratum of images while gesturing to the harm wrought by reified portrayals of gendered and racially motivated death in contemporary media culture.

Arguably, the implications of this should not be overlooked. As Christina Sharp reminds us in her poignant analysis on the circulation of images of Black death, the repetition of violent imagery not only does not halt the colonial project violence, but it becomes the fertile ground upon which this project is rendered continuous. Accordingly, much as in the practices of Black annotation and Black redaction that Sharp offers, which enable forms of reading and seeing counter to and ‘in excess of what is caught in the frame’, we find that these critical reiterations make it possible to reflect on feminicide in different levels and denaturalize the image of violence by connecting feminicide as a singular event with its politics, thus interrupting the normative scripts of premature death.23 

Finally, leaning on the work of Ariella Azoulay, I would like to suggest that the idea of becoming-still also invites thinking about feminicide violence as something that lingers in the time being. Azoulay’s conceptualization of the ethical status of photography of violence leans on the dual signification of the word still: as something ‘without motion (a photographic still) and continuing in the present (still there)’.24 This dual understanding prevents the viewer from thinking about the emergency claim made by the photographed subjects as removed from the present—something that ‘was there’—and dismissing the responsibility that accompanies the realization of the temporal co-presence with those depicted. Even though in the case of feminicide images, one could argue that the women depicted in the photographs are no longer here—at least not physically—these photographs still charge us with the responsibility of contesting the mechanics of power that produced them as less than human—a system that, if it remains in place, will ensure the massacre goes on. This extended temporality also sheds new light on the strategy of reenactment as a means whereby women situated in the present can re-signify past events and, at once, lay their emergency claim into the here and now. To this extent, they open an interval where multiple times co-exist and become imbricated in productive ways.

Aline Hernández is an art historian, exhibition curator, and scholar born and raised in Mexico. Her research interests cover feminist and queer theory, necropolitics, photography, and contemporary performance art in the Americas. Currently, she is a SGSAH Doctoral Researcher in art history at St Andrews University, where she is conducting a research project on the politics of representation of feminicide violence in Mexico. She serves on the editorial board of Kunstlicht, an academic journal for art, visual culture, and architecture, and she is a member of the research group Imaginarios Mortuorios. 

 

 

 

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Notes:

  1. La Tehuana is a giant monument located at the main entrance to the city of Tehuantepec. It was created in 2008 by the sculptor Miguel Hernández, and it represents a tribute to Zapotec women.
  2. While in anglophone feminist theory the term femicide is more frequently used, my use choice seeks to remain consistent with my interlocutors in Mexico who generally use the term feminicidio.
  3. Formulated by Rebecca Schneider, the concept ‘vigilant gestural repetitions’ references deliberate forms of counter-appropriation as seen in feminist, queer, and racially marked performances. See Rebecca Schneider and Lucia Ruprecht, ‘In our hands: An Ethics of gestural response-ability. Rebecca Schneider in conversation with Lucia Ruprecht.’ Performance Philosophy 3, no. 1 (2017): 108-125. https://www.performancephilosophy.org/journal/article/view/161/172 [accessed 6 January 2022].
  4. See Achille Mbembe, ‘Necropolitics’, Public Culture 15, no. 1 (2003): 11-40.
  5. Benita Heiskanen, ‘Ni Una Más, Not One More: Activist-Artistic Response to the Juárez Feminicides,’ JOMEC Journal 3 (2013): 3. http://doi.org/10.18573/j.2013.10241
  6. See Kathleen Staudt and Zulma Y. Méndez, Courage, Resistance & Women in Ciudad Juárez. Challenges to Militarization (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015).
  7. For Lucio Soria and Julián Cardona’s comments on photography of violence see Susana Morales Pérez, ‘La mirada de dos fotoperiodistas de los noventa: Ciudad Juárez entre la historia y la representación’, Pecarina del Sur 3, no. 11 (2011), http://www.pacarinadelsur.com/home/pielago-de-imagenes/447-la-mirada-de-dos-fotoperiodistas-de-los-noventa-ciudad-juarez-entre-la-historia-y-la-representacion [accessed 17 November 2021] and Darwin Franco Migues, ‘Lucio Soria. Las fotografías no deben mentir,’ Testigos Presenciales, http://nuestraaparenterendicion.com/testigospresenciales/lucio-soria/ [accessed 17 November 2021].
  8. Allan Sekula, ‘Dismantling Modernism, Reinventing Documentary (Notes on the Politics of Representation,’ The Massachusetts Review 19, no. 4 (1978): 869.
  9. Martha Rosler, Decoys and Disruptions. Selected Writings, 1975-2001 (Massachusetts and London: The MIT Press, 2004), 42.
  10. Abigail Solomon-Godeau, ed. Sarah Parsons, Photography after Photography. Gender, Genre, History (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2017): 7.
  11. In Melissa Wright’s definition, the public woman is that woman found at ‘any other place construed as “nondomestic”.’ See Melissa Wright, ‘Public Women, Profit, and Femicide in Northern Mexico’, South Atlantic Quarterly 105, no. 4 (2006): 682. https://doi.org/10.1215/00382876-2006-003
  12. The concept of ‘ideological and contextual coordinates’ is developed by Lorena Fuentes. See Lorena Fuentes, ‘(Re)Reading the boundaries and bodies of feminicide: exploring articulations within the discursive economy of gendered violence in ‘post war’ Guatemala’ (PhD diss., Birkbeck University of London, 2020).
  13. John Roberts, Photography and its Violations (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014): 39.
  14. Lorena Fuentes, ‘“The Garbage of Society”: Disposable Women and the Socio-Spatial Scripts of Feminicide in Guatemala’, Antipode 52, no. 6 (2020): 1681.
  15. Cristina Baldacci, ‘Reenactment. Errant Images in Contemporary Art’, Cultural Inquiry, no. 15 (2019):  60-58. https://doi.org/10.25620/ci-15_07
  16. Fuentes, ‘(Re)Reading the boundaries’, 10.
  17. Rebecca Schneider, The Explicit Body in Performance (London and New York: Routledge, 1997), 2.
  18. See Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), 35.
  19. Jennifer Doyle, Hold it against me, difficulty and emotion in contemporary art (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2013), 76.
  20. Carolyn J. Dean, ‘Empathy, Pornography, and Suffering’, Differences 14, no. 1 (2003): 90. https://doi.org/10.1215/10407391-14-1-88
  21. André Lepecki, Exhausting Dance. Performance and the politics of movement (New York and London: Routledge, 2006), 15.
  22. Nadia Seremetakis, ‘The Memory of the Senses, Part I: Marks of the Transitory’, in The Senses Still: Perception and Memory as Material Culture in Modernity, ed. Nadia Seremetakis (Chicago, Ill: Zone Books, 1994), 12.
  23. Christina Sharp, In the Wake. On Blackness and Being (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2016), 117.
  24. Laura Levin, ‘The Performative Force of Photography,’ Photography and Culture 2, no. 2 (2009): 330.  https://doi.org/10.2752/175145109X12532077132473

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