Simming: Participatory Performance and the Making of Meaning

Simming: Participatory Performance and the Making of Meaning

by Scott Magelssen

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At an ecopark in Mexico, tourists pretend to be illegal migrants, braving inhospitable terrain and the U.S. Border Patrol as they attempt to cross the border. At a living history museum in Indiana, daytime visitors return after dark to play fugitive slaves on the Underground Railroad. In the Mojave Desert, the U.S. Army simulates entire provinces of Iraq and Afghanistan, complete with bustling villages, insurgents, and Arabic-speaking townspeople, to train soldiers for deployment to the Middle East. At a nursing home, trainees put on fogged glasses and earplugs, thick bands around their finger joints, and sandbag harnesses to simulate the effects of aging and to gain empathy for their patients.

These immersive environments in which spectator-participants engage in simulations of various kinds—or “simming”—are the subject of Scott Magelssen’s book. His book lays out the ways in which simming can provide efficacy and promote social change through affective, embodied testimony. Using methodology from theater history and performance studies (particularly as these fields intersect with cultural studies, communication, history, popular culture, and American studies), Magelssen explores the ways these representational practices produce, reify, or contest cultural and societal perceptions of identity.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780472052141
Publisher: University of Michigan Press
Publication date: 05/31/2014
Series: Theater: Theory/Text/Performance Series
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 264
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Scott Magelssen is Associate Professor of Drama and Performance Studies at the University of Washington

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Participatory Performance and the Making of Meaning

By Scott Magelssen

The University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2014 University of Michigan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-472-12030-7


"This Is a Drama. You Are Characters"

Simming the Fugitive Slave in Conner Prairie's "Follow the North Star"

Adventure Network International offers extreme outdoor enthusiasts and exploration buffs a skiing expedition to the South Pole to relive the final portions of Roald Amundsen's and Robert Falcon Scott's expeditions in the "Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration." For an average of $57,000, skiers can be flown in from Chile and dropped off at latitude 89° S, sixty nautical miles from the Pole, to "ski the last degree" over the course of ten to twenty-one days. Guests staying at the Hotel Cavalieri Hilton in Rome can pay 500 Euros (about $670) a session for a gladiator-training program in which they can dress in costume and try their skills in combat. Too expensive? Anyone could pay $5 to help reenact the Boston Tea Party for its 234th anniversary in December 2007, but those who wore "traditional colonial attire" could do it for free. In the same city in March of the following year, at "Kids Reenact the Massacre," Adams National Park rangers led young visitors in a reenactment of the Boston Massacre as part of the 238th anniversary celebration sponsored by the Bostonian Historical Society.

For the past several years now, the tourism industry has been implementing attractions that privilege explicitly performative participation by immersing tourists in scenarios that simulate extraordinary, high-impact, or traumatic lived events from the past. A seeming hybrid of adventure tourism and outdoor museum role-playing, each of these tourist simmings negotiates between tensions of tourist comfort and historical realism, between tourist agency in the production of narratives and the agenda of the site or institution staging the event, and between the vacationing body and that of the sometimes abject character it is portraying, for, in addition to simming adventurers, colonial patriots, and gladiators, tourists can find offerings that let them play casualties of Civil War violence — or fugitive black slaves.

Part I examines this phenomenon within the context of recent shifts in the tourism industry, as well as a theoretical framework informed by performance studies scholars Diana Taylor, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, and others. I argue that, while these programs can be dismissed as kitschy, sensational, niche tourism for thrill seekers, there is more than a small element of witness going on: by participating bodily in tourist performances that invite visitors to take on the personae of those who have been made abject by violent or oppressive forces, or those who have been subjected to peril in the pursuit of more authentic agency or self-authorship, the performers, in Taylor's terms, engage in embodied ways of knowing and making meaning, of "vital acts of transfer," which transcend that which is available through print sources. At the same time, however, because the visitor-performers are, on the face of it, granted much more agency in the making of meaning in these simmings — in their ability to make choices in the development of the narrative, in their agendas or the "horizons of expectations" with which they approach the experiences, and in the autonomous readings they might assign the narrative — there is considerable slippage to be found between the meanings intended by the producing bodies (the theme park, the museum, etc.) and the bodies that perform them. In this first chapter of part I, I touch on a range of tourist-simming phenomena, but, as a way of situating these theoretical discussions within a concrete set of references, I focus specifically on my own experiences with "Follow the North Star," the Underground Railroad program at the Conner Prairie living history museum, and the ways in which my body and those of my fellow participants bore witness to, and made particular meanings out of, the history of nineteenth-century fugitive African American slaves.

Simmings that assign an active, participatory role to the tourist are not necessarily all that new, but a brief overview of recent tourism literature suggests that these performative events are presently experiencing a kind of boom, fostered by the particular set of discourses and economic shifts that shape the touristic landscape at the moment. Brian S. Osborne and Jason F. Kovacs report that cultural tourism in general is growing exponentially, fomenting new economies on the global scene as purveyors of destinations labor to package a "different sense of place, a different genre de vie" for retiring baby boomers and the "emerging middle classes of the modernizing non-Western Worlds" in postindustrial society. And heritage is the key part of the package. Citing David Brett, Ernie Heath, and Geoffrey Wall, as well as Robert Hewison and Howard Hughes, they write, "A combination of nostalgia for an imagined past, economic and cultural insecurity, and a growing demand for the consumption of entertainment has made cultural heritage tourism integral to both economic and cultural policy." Local economies are looking to tourism as a way to produce meaningful experiences for paying visitors, to replace industries that have been "disrupted by global economic restructuring." On many occasions, communities develop tourist offerings that restage the glory days of their now defunct industries — a kind of second go at a community's source of income, based on the first. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett terms these kinds of tourist-economic moves "afterlives." Elsewhere Kirshenblatt-Gimblett signals a shift from tourism centered on spaces and objects to the experience of the tourist itself, often divorced from the actualities that experience references (e.g., Luxor in Las Vegas). She writes:

Increasingly we travel to actual destinations to experience virtual places. ... In New Zealand, you can scale the wall of your hotel or "spend the night in jail for a farm stay with a difference," at Old Te Whaiti Jail, as it advertises itself. Refashioned as a living accommodation, this historic jail wears with pride and humor the irony of its second life as heritage. The Cowshed Cafe markets itself as "New Zealand's only restaurant in a once operating dairy shed (no shit)." The Elephant Hotel in Atlantic City is "the only elephant in the world you can go through and come out alive."

Along these same lines, Dean MacCannell, in his groundbreaking text The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class, posits a particularly modern touristic desire for an experience of the "authentic" that has been separated from the modern subject by the alienating, fragmenting forces of industrialization and is now to be found "elsewhere" in staged authenticities that often simulate traditional acts of labor in rural settings to stand in for what we've lost. The tourist's consciousness — indeed the modern consciousness in MacCannell's argument — is motivated by a need for communion with a substitute for those lost "authentic," traditional roots (the family, the neighborhood, the workbench), and the tourism industry has been quick to meet this need with soothing cultural productions, even if there is nothing "authentic" about them.

Heritage studies scholar Laurajane Smith marks the ways in which tourists nowadays are, in point of fact, articulating what authenticity means in ways that depart from traditional notions based on a kind of true-cross material quality in a destination or sight. "Instead," she writes "they have begun to stress the idea of emotional and experiential authenticity." In other words, tourists find authenticity through "doing" rather than consuming it through a passive audiencing. Tourism today, Smith suggests,

is not so much a product or a destination, but an embodied practice, in which our bodies encounter space in its materiality, and that materiality is itself constructed and understood through our engagement and encounters with it; subsequently "tourism is a practice of ontological knowledge, an encounter with space that is both social and incorporates and embodied 'feeling of doing.'" ... While the sense of experience often created in tourism has been criticized for its tendency to commodify or Disneyfy the past, or for its tendency to transform the identities "through pernicious vogue storylines," it nonetheless demonstrates the importance of "doing" and "being" at a "place."

But within the tourist sites that boast a sense of authentic, experiential heritage, those programs that give the visitors personae and immerse them in an environment where they make performative choices in response to narrative developments are a particularly compelling subset. In the living history museum world, this kind of simming is called "second-person interpretation" — where you do the interpreting of the past (versus the first-person character interpreters or third-person costumed docents) by trying your hand at what a historic individual would do. These programs are becoming more and more popular at living museums as tourists seek more immersive and active experiences.

Conner Prairie, a fourteen-hundred-acre "interactive history park" depicting nineteenth-century Indiana, located twenty-five minutes north of downtown Indianapolis, has billed itself as "one of the nation's most authentic living history museums." "When you visit [1836] Prairietown," the orientation film tells visitors, "you actually go back in time." About ten years ago, Conner Prairie moved toward a new museum curriculum, "Live the Prairie," which extensively incorporated second-person interpretation into its performance programming. A major part of the "Live the Prairie" curriculum is Conner Prairie's "Follow the North Star" program, in which daytime visitors return to the museum at night and step into the roles of fugitive black slaves seeking freedom in the North. Several times a night in April and November, forty Conner Prairie staff members, performing slave owners, bounty hunters, helpful Quakers, and so on, lead small groups of participants from point to point, under cover of darkness, through a simulated threatening environment, seeking to teach the history of slavery in Indiana in the nineteenth century.

While most major U.S. living museums (Plimoth Plantation, Colonial Williamsburg, Old Sturbridge Village, Living History Farms) are making strides in the area of second-person simming techniques, these are generally limited to routine activities like trying a plow, participating in a musket drill, or churning butter, none of which involves playing a character. "Follow the North Star" differs from these programs in that it immerses participants in an open scenario in which they are invited to play a role. Each participant is assigned an identity, briefed on the situation, given some amount of room for decision making, engaged in dialogue throughout the performance, and told his or her fate at the conclusion. I've participated in this program a few times now. The first time was in April 2004, when I went through the simulation with my wife Theresa. We agreed afterward that, indeed, "Follow the North Star," subjected us to a bracing evening of embodied history. No amount of reading or spectating, we found, promised the particular charge of this kind of learning. It was physiologically impressed on our bones and muscles as we knelt in abject submission before our racial betters, dashed from our pursuers, or huddled on the floor of a Quaker family's candlelit kitchen with a meager repast of cornbread and water. And reviewers of the program around that time similarly gave it high marks for these advances in experiential learning.

However, this mode of performative historiography, in which participants stand in for real others, can pose trenchant and uncomfortable representational problems. In many ways, the bodily experience offered by simming can do a much better job than can visual or textual communication in connecting twenty-first-century individuals with the material existences of their counterparts in the past, and indeed even in connecting with each other across cultural and ideological lines. In other ways, though, it can be more difficult to find a perceived "match" between past and present bodies. Instances of race and ethnicity, especially when it comes to the history of slavery, elicit some particular dilemmas. That proves to be the case with "Follow the North Star." While the main characters in the reenactment are black slaves, both staff and participants are, for the most part, white.

Issues of responsible representation of identity and history are of critical importance and essential to address if simming as a technique is to adequately and responsibly bear witness to a history of violence, injustice, and suffering. The idea of the tourist body simming the historical, and in this case explicitly "racial," body is particularly knotty. So how can both museum curators and museum visitors, in many cases cast against racial type in a purportedly realistic environment, negotiate historiographic and representational boundaries as they bear witness to the lived past?

It is the very presence, visibility, and constructed identity of the body that makes living history living, and it is the body that distinguishes the historiographic practices of living history museums from those written modes of historiography in which the body is deemphasized, erased, or silenced. As Michel de Certeau writes, the text itself contractually stands in for the present body of the historian in the written historiographic operation, so that, thereafter, the body is not a necessary commodity in the exchange between historian and reader, just as the signature surrogates for the hand of the signer, allowing the document to function in lieu of the body. If written historiography makes a business out of seeking to write the absent body, living history simming, as performative historiography, infuses the reconstruction of the past with a surrogate body and proceeds to write its history on the surrogate body and that of its spectator. In this manner, the body itself becomes the implicit contract of authenticity and authority at living history sites.

In the context of general programming at living museums (i.e., costumed, first- and third-person interpretation), the bodies in the representation of the past milieu are different from the lived bodies of the past, but they function as the museums' guarantee of authenticity for spectators, over and above the authenticity obtainable by traditional in situ museum exhibits or dioramas. This is especially true for institutions like Plimoth Plantation, which have deaccessioned their own artifact collections to devote more resources to living history programs. Living museums will promote this aspect, which effectively separates them from traditional history museums, in their literature and programming (e.g., "When you visit Prairietown, you actually go back in time"). In other words, living bodies in the present promise a more "real" time travel experience than visitors would get from a collection of historic objects. What this means is that the body becomes a site of knowledge production on an equal footing with, or, in the case of living museums, even more powerful than, the book or the archive. At the same time, the living history body occupies a fuzzy discursive terrain between fictive performance and "legitimate" history. Because this is the case, the body, as historiographic agent in living museum simming, is in need of careful and intentional theorizing at these sites. Even trickier is the second-person interpreter's body. It ostensibly belongs to the visitor — who is not on the museum's payroll, nor wearing the institution's name badge or historical costume — but the autonomy of the visitor's body is questionable, since it performs and voices the history of the institution when it participates in museum programs.

The body has always been fundamental to the transmission of knowledge, information, and culture. Indeed, as Hayden White would have it, the maintenance of the body and its products preceded all other systems of meaning and provides the basis of "culture." At the same time, the body has, since the beginning of culture, been contested by other modes and instruments of discourse that have often sought to stand in for, or erase, the body — as does the signature in de Certeau's example. But, as Susan Leigh Foster writes in her introduction to Choreographing History, even though the body has often remained absent or ignored in discourse, it is able to communicate signs, complex ideas, and history through gesture, performance, dance, and sexuality. Such issues are poignantly brought to light when examining how present bodies signify and bear witness to the bodies of the past at living museums.


Excerpted from Simming by Scott Magelssen. Copyright © 2014 University of Michigan. Excerpted by permission of The University of Michigan Press.
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Table of Contents

Introduction 1

Part I Simming the Past

1 "This Is a Drama. You Are Characters": Simming the Fugitive Slave in Conner Prairie's "Follow the North Star" 29

2 Simming the (Virtual) Past 48

3 Playing Dead, or Living History with Corpses 62

Part II Bearing Witness to the Present

4 Learner-Driven Simming 77

5 Playing the Illegal Migrant: Tourist Simming in Mexico 96

Part III Preenactments, or Rehearsing for the Future

6 Preempting Trauma 115

7 Senior Moments 138

8 Rehearsing the Warrior Ethos 155

Conclusion 177

Notes 191

Bibliography 225

Index 243

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