The Form of Remains

Hito Steyerl and Maja Petrović-Šteger

August, 2012
Ljubljana—Frankfurt 

Dear Hito, 

I've recently watched your Journal No. 1—An Artist’s Impression (2007) again, the documentary in which you recreate some of the personal and collective memories people have of the 1990s Bosnian wars through footage about and belonging to the ex-Yugoslav film studio, “Sutjeska”. More than anything else, the archive, with its burnt racks and missing films, evoked for me the various local and internationally-run DNA and re-association labs that store human remains from the more than 40,000 unaccounted-for at the end of the Yugoslav wars, all ready for testing. In place of films, the racks hold parts of commingled and sometimes decomposing body parts. During the war, material objects sometimes shared the same destiny as people—dented by shell splinters, pocked, scored, burnt, hidden, exchanged, left to rot. Nowadays, these people or these parts play a crucial role in post-conflict attempts to make sense of what happened. Human remains stand above all as evidence of war crimes and atrocities.

Yet what does it mean to make sense of the war? What constitutes proof of a war crime? Moreover, what are bodies and what are remains? Some authors suggest that unlike in academia, where “the body” is generally treated as a text or a trope, in society at large and in the global economy, “the body” must always be understood as a tangible, palpable, undeniably “real” material object; one that, furthermore, is sometimes a “commodity” that can be bartered or sold1Others think that the dead body has been dematerialized in certain representations to the point where it is no longer intelligible as a former social being—and that these representations of bodies do not help people to understand what it means to be a victim of a human catastrophe2. Yet over the course of my work, I’ve found distinctions between (on the one hand) a “real” body, and (on the other) a conjectural or metaphorical one—or between ordinary and “spectacular” bodies—a distinction that is increasingly difficult to police, or to use to understand the experiences of those who had lost family members in conflict. 

As you know, over the past decade, I’ve been examining a range of material practices and rhetorical strategies engaging the dead body in post-conflict Serbia and Tasmania. Considering various cases of political burials, mass exhumations, re-interments and claims for bodily retrieval and repatriation, my research attended to the ways in which people imagine and enact relations between the deceased and their corpses. I sought to document and understand the value and meaning of the body and of human remains in the twenty-first century, from an anthropological point of view. Human remains, nowadays, are intersected by a set of highly charged contemporary discourses of scientific rationality and legitimacy, property and human rights. In the different ethnographic cases of Serbia and Tasmania, diverse parties have identified the recovery and identification of bodily remains, and their subsequent return to bereaved families, as part of a healing or restorative process. Yet the forms in which body parts circulated in these situations—as a means for reconciliation, as commodities, as private mementos, and as a form of DNA-coded information—were always more various than the official narratives of attribution and assignment suggested. My research sought to illuminate and contextualize the realities of the diplomatic, spiritual, scientific and legal resources that shape and enable the movement of the dead or dismembered body. Needless to say, what interested me most was the creativity with which people deal with their troubled pasts and imagined futures. 

My work did not presume a straightforward equation of bodies with social beings, but rather inquired into how representations—and the experience—of dead bodies enact persons. That the dead body is necessarily the site of a physical individual is a wrongful assumption. Societies conceive death, personhood, and interpersonal attachment in a variety of ways. Resisting the urge to ontologise the body, or bodily remains, by presupposing a specific physical reality, I came instead to the view that different phenomena make up the “field of the body” in post-conflict societies. Whilst the “dead body” throughout my research was often an undeniably material object, it also named a conceptual tool for understanding the past and projecting a future, even as it offered a site of knowledge production, moral dispute and the representation of victimhood. The dead body could also be a synecdoche for reconciliation, or a placeholder for scientific value. When people related to, evoked, or claimed dead bodies, they meant something more inclusive and less securely categorized than the bare physicality of the body. Bodies included, and emotionally meant, the clothes of the war-missing, the scars left by aesthetic interventions, the red blood cells of sick bodies, the genetic or DNA profiles of corpses, and the peace of the souls of the bodies that might accompany repatriation to an “ancestral” home. Phenomena of different orders—biological, discursive, material and conceptual—were all drawn into a coherent field marked by the term “the body”. Bodies were no less physical when they became frameworks through which people negotiated their relation to ideas of modernity, democracy, and accountability. 

In one of your letters, you said that in the “Kiss” installation, like in your other works, you try to avoid showing bones or dealing with human remains visually. In your email on March 21, 2012, you wrote that “They make terrible / impossible aesthetic objects. Somehow I feel one should show them as little as possible but rather investigate the conditions and technologies that make them over/under-visible”.

I too have always avoided showing human remains. After my talks, the audience always asks for photographs. They want to know what mass-grave sites and exhumations look like; they want to look into the faces of those searching for the remains of their missing relatives or those of the forensic archaeologists or lawyers taking care of repatriation claims. For a number of still-not-completely articulated reasons, I have always felt disgusted at the idea of passing around the photos. Not because the images would be disturbing, but rather that in the process of exhibiting them, they would become mere objects, eliciting easily moral, perhaps learned emotions (shock, despair, horror, solidarity, compassion). Pictures of remains are supposed to be palpable, moving, and emotion-triggering. But what does it mean to be moved by the predicaments of others? What kind of emotions can be aroused by the sight of bare bones? Moreover, in my experience, rather than opening up listeners’s minds, this economy of representation—only showing the bones—has always tended to lock people into their presumptions of what dead bodies and remains signify. 

In various reconstructions of Andrea Wolf’s story, you relate her life through pictures of her as a strong and beautiful feminist; a modern Amazon. Andrea left Germany to join the Kurdish liberation movement, assuming the name Sehît Rohanî. Eventually she was taken prisoner and executed by the Turkish security forces. In “November” (2004), you say that her body was never found and has never been returned. What came back instead was a poster of a smiling freedom fighter adorning an insurgent banner. Andrea became a revered martyr for the Kurdish cause. The poster declared, “Martyr Sehît Rohanî taken prisoner and murdered by Turkish security forces as a fighter in the free women’s army of Kurdistan.” You saw the poster in a cinema next to posters for erotic films. The link between martyrs and pin-ups comes up again in the 2007 film “Lovely Andrea”. That documentary reconstructs the search for a series of photographs of a roped SBM model (yourself), who used the pseudonym “Andrea” and featured in Japanese bondage magazines. 

Your work—your stills, excerpts, fragments, facts, artifacts and recollections—give the audience the chance to read, participate in, and construct Andrea’s (hi)story. Just as bodies are both materially and conceptually capable of different constructions, so too are stories. When bodies become remains, they are perhaps the text of a story. As objects for emotional identification and cathexis, and as physical remnants, human remains tend to be conceptualized as being fractured. They almost always stand for parts. Furthermore, this fragmentation of the body goes hand in hand with the notion of the fragmentary nature of the truth(s) people attribute to remains. The shattered form invokes a kind of constitutive disproportionality, revealing the excessiveness, and the necessity of investment, in the processes by which body parts are “pressed” into sense. 

The color of Hito Steyerl’s text, which is lying in the lines above,  will change to black once she has found experts—anthropological archaeologists or forensics, lab analysts for chemical weapons, forensic chemists or otherwise, who help her secure more evidence as well as test the evidence she has already collected from the remote mountain site where her friend Andrea Wolf was supposedly extrajudicially executed as a member of the PKK. She has been missing since 1998. Should the letters suddenly become legible here online, it means that someone has answered her repeated and as-yet unsuccessful pleas for assistance with an issue that is so politically inconvenient that even blatant evidence of human rights violations remains invisible, inaudible and impossible. So long as the text is white, it means that not only this issue but also those of hundreds of other mass graves in the region have been left unsettled and unaddressed
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  • 1. Scheper-Hugh Nancy. “The Ends of the Body: Commodity Fetishism and the Global Traffic in the Organs”. In SAIS Review: A Journal of International Affairs 22 (1), (2002). 61–80.
  • 2. Klinenberg Eric. “Bodies that Don’t Matter: Death and Deriliction in Chicago”. In Commodifying Bodies. Edited by Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Loïc Wacquant. (London: Sage, 2002).