Briefing Paper: Network Conference “Culture and its Uses as Testimony” (11-12 April 2018)

The concluding conference of the AHRC-funded network ‘Culture and its Uses as Testimony’ took place at the University of Birmingham on the 11-12 April 2018. It brought together scholars and practitioners from a wide range of disciplines and fields to explore in depth the forms, frameworks, ethics and methods of giving testimony in cultural forms. Below we give a summary of the key themes and concerns addressed in the eight panels and four plenary sessions. This is followed by a more detailed account of the papers given at the conference. Where we have had permission to make these available, recordings of the papers can be found by clicking on the speaker’s name below. The briefing paper can be downloaded as a PDF by clicking here.

Key Themes and Concerns

As has been the case at each of the network workshops, the issue of authenticity was key concern in a number of the conference papers: what it is, how to recognise it and why it matters. Participants largely agreed that it should not straightforwardly be understood as something that is an inherent property of testimony. The truth of testimony cannot simply be determined with reference to facts, and the impact of mediation through memory and language is sharpened when testimony is also mediated through theatre, film, literature, autobiographical writing, digital forms, and so on. Moreover, truth is not identical to authenticity. An audience can recognise that something is not a one-to-one representation of reality and yet still perceive it as authentic in its own terms. This leads to the recognition that authenticity is a process, a dialogue between witness and audience – a witnessing text must be accepted as authentic by the reader, viewer, visitor, or listener, in order to have an impact as testimony. Several participants noted that authenticity was not only something that a witness strived for, it was also something actively sought out by audiences; it is a product that people consume, and not necessarily in ways that we expect or consider appropriate. This raises considerable ethical issues relating to the (mis)use of testimony in what might be deemed authenticity industries.

Authenticity relates to a second key concern of conference participants: embodiment and performance. Several speakers described ways in which cultural practitioners sought to bring testimony to new audiences through embodiment; for example, by performing the testimony on stage, either with the witness him- or herself as performer or by speaking their words verbatim, using 3D representations of Holocaust survivors in museums, or positioning audience bodies at sites of trauma when they are listening to witness accounts. Embodiment emerged in the discussion as something that artistic forms in particular can bring to testimony and which might encourage audiences to hear and acknowledge voices that are otherwise silenced. Embodiment can foster empathy with victims and survivors and thereby encourage a political or social response. Nonetheless, participants in the conference expressed disquiet with the potential of embodiment to become appropriation. This risk pertains in particular to artistic forms in which a practitioner performs the witness – not only his or her words, but also his or her actions and modes of expression. In turning testimony into art and poetry, do practitioners risk appearing to claim ownership of the experiences of others?

In this way embodiment raises similar questions to a third key concern discussed at the conference: fictionalisation. Several of the panels tackled the question of what fictionalisation can or cannot do. Practitioners often identify or construct key tropes and images that represent larger concepts or experiences. These tropes and images are not fiction in the sense of being untrue, but neither are they verbatim accounts of the witness’s words. This method ‘condenses’ testimony and makes it emotionally and cognitively more accessible to audiences; and yet, it might be seen as another form of appropriation or even distortion of testimony. A further ethical issue is the extent to which fictionalisation represents a betrayal of the trust of an audience. There was some degree of consensus among participants that fictionality as it pertains to testimony should be signalled in some way (for example, through the paratext) in order to avoid (mis)appropriation and misleading those who approach it in good faith as a direct retelling of the witness’s account.

Thus all three of these concerns relate to the final key point of discussion at the conference: the ethical dilemmas in the use of testimony in culture. Here we raised more questions than we found answers to and it is clear that the ethics of testimony will be intrinsically linked to our future reflections on methodologies. How should we approach testimony in research and practice? How can we collect and use testimony for cultural projects in ways that are ethical? What would an ethics of the use of testimony in culture look like? Should we avoid contributing to an industry of testimony in which survivor accounts become a commodity and, if so, how? As we present testimony in and through culture, where is the line between collaboration with the witness and appropriation of his or her story?

Detail of the Panels and Plenaries

Plenary 1: In this session, the PI and CI of the network, Sara Jones (University of Birmingham) and Roger Woods (University of Nottingham), outlined their initial conclusions and further questions regarding the theoretical and methodological frameworks for the study of cultural uses of testimony. Drawing on the discussions at the three network workshops, Jones and Woods considered how researchers and practitioners across disciplines might conceptualise culture as/in/through testimony and the ethical and practical implications of cultural forms of testimony in processes of post-conflict justice. They argued that viewing testimony through the lens of culture (broadly understood) heightens our awareness of processes of mediation and the role of cultural scripts, that is, the nature of testimony as performance and dialogue. A focus on mediation highlighted in turn the constructed nature of authenticity and attendant ethical issues relating to perpetrator testimony and secondary witnessing. These ethical issues inflect the methods of using cultural forms of testimony: from cultural studies approaches that look at context, agency and reception, through narrative enquiry and thick description, to practices of informed empathetic listening. Inherent to all of these approaches is the delicate balance between avoiding appropriation, allowing survivors (and indeed perpetrators) to speak their truth, and recognising both the subjectivity of first-person accounts and the authority that comes with granting individuals the right to bear witness.

Panel 1: Definitions and Key Concepts: Panel 1 had as its focus the exploration of concepts that had proven key to network discussions so far. In the first paper, Achim Saupe (Centre for Contemporary History, Potsdam) explored in detail the concept of authenticity as it relates in particular to heritage and public history. Saupe identified a gap between understandings of authenticity amongst historians (object authenticity) and amongst heritage managers (subjective authenticity). These distinctions also inflect the ways that researchers and practitioners from different disciplines and fields think about testimony as an account of the past and as an account of experience. Saupe argued that the gap might be bridged by analysing authenticity as the result of communication structures, asking who authenticates an object or narrative, how they authenticate it and, perhaps most importantly, why. In the second paper, Bill Niven (Nottingham Trent University) conducted a similar in depth exploration of perhaps the key term of the network: testimony. Niven argued that while we might include novels, diaries, works of art, letters and other artefacts in our understanding of what testimony is, we need to distinguish within all forms of testimony between those who did and did not experience the event in question directly. He criticised terms such as post-memory – which have been developed in particular in relation to Holocaust testimony – for ignoring the filter of socialisation and cultural context and implying that there can be a direct translation or transferal of experience. For Niven, fictional film about the Holocaust is not Holocaust testimony, but that does not mean it is not testimony at all. Instead, we can read these cultural forms for what they say about the politics, culture and society in which they were produced. Mark Wolfgram (McGill University) picked up on this issue in his discussion of differences in Japanese and German memory cultures in reference to World War II. Wolfgram noted that such differences are usually given a political explanation, whereas in fact cultural ones are equally significant. Psychological and social processes are in part culturally determined (for example the approach to death, blame). A sustained flow of information about the past is needed in order for it to be remembered, yet what we feel comfortable bringing up in conversation is culturally prescribed. Cultural norms thus shape the kinds of cultural testimonies that can be produced in a given society.

Panel 2: Methodologies 1: Working with the Witness: The speakers in Panel 2 turned their attention to the methodological and ethical issues that result from working directly with the witness. In the first paper, Gary Mills (University of Nottingham) considered the use of survivor testimony in the classroom in terms of its pedagogical value. Mills demonstrated that face-to-face testimony is seen by teachers as trustworthy and inspirational. While teachers intervene to structure learning, the ‘sanctity’ of such testimony means that they may not wish to draw attention to the fact that survivors may change their stories. In contrast, teachers see virtual testimony as more like other standard teaching resources, and consider that something is lost by not having the survivor in the classroom. In their paper, the second in this panel, Fransiska Louwagie (University of Leicester) and Caroline Sharples (University of Roehampton) continued the discussion of Holocaust education in schools. Focusing on the role of Holocaust education to teach students to engage with the past and with other genocides, Sharples and Louwagie described a pilot project for Year 9 (13-14 years) that combined workshops and a drama performance in a ‘fictional museum of humankind’.  The speakers’ research on the impact of this intervention demonstrated an increase in students’ understanding of genocide and desire for further learning. In the final paper in this panel, Anissa Daoudi (University of Birmingham) presented her work with female survivors of sexual violence during the Algerian Civil War of the 1990s. In a context in which discussion of this period is precluded by the Amnesty Law of 2005, Daoudi’s project brought thirty women together with artists, writers, film-makers, and graffiti artists to speak out against the silence by translating their survivor stories into multiple formats. The ambition of the project is to pave the way to transitional justice.

Panel 3: Gender and Testimony: Daoudi’s paper also connected to the focus in Panel 3 on the role of gender in the production and reception of testimony. In the first paper, Emilie Pine (University College Dublin) explored theatrical and digital responses to testimony of child abuse. In particular, she considered how different media can translate the 1999 government report (Ryan Report) on systematic child abuse in Catholic residential schools into a format that is received and heard by the public. She argued that theatre mediates these stories in ways that embody, rather than narrate them and use space to create an emotional and critical reaction. The project Industrial Memories aimed to transfer some of these strategies to the world of digital testimonies through the use of an audio-map app, using which people could listen to witness testimony at the site of the trauma. One potential criticism is that the app makes listening to testimony a private and individual experience, in contrast to the communal witnessing of the theatre. Nena Močnik (University of Turku) also discussed the potential of theatre to embody testimony and give voice to otherwise unspeakable experiences. Močnik’s paper described her use of ethnodrama as a method of both research and dissemination to explore the testimonies of survivors of sexual violence in Bosnia Herzegovina. Drama allows the researcher to avoid the voyeuristic dimension of confronting students and audiences with testimony directly by representing the bodily dimension of what people went through. This does, however, raise ethical questions in terms of asking the survivor to perform on stage and the potential for re-traumatisation. In the final paper in this panel, Olga Michael (UClan Cyprus) examined graphic novels that give an account of femicide in Juarez and attempt to mediate the trauma of the victims and their families for an Anglophone audience. As in the other papers in this panel, a key dimension to these works was the aim to encourage audiences to receive and listen to testimonies that are otherwise ignored or silenced.

Panel 4: Perpetrator Testimony: Panel 4 also considered complex ethical questions, this time in relation to the use of perpetrator testimony. Ute Hirsekorn (University of Nottingham) showed how research on autobiographical writing by the former political elite of the GDR can shed light on patterns of thought, leadership and collective mentalities and how these in turn can help explain the GDR’s particular brand of socialism. The paper also raised important questions of ethics for research that involves conducting interviews with citizens of the former GDR. In the second paper in this panel, Sue Vice (University of Sheffield) examined 250 hours of unused footage recorded for Lanzmann’s Shoah project and demonstrated how covert filming of interviewees was a technological mediation that created a ‘perpetrator aesthetic’. Vice asks whether the interviews produce what can be called testimony from ‘the perpetrator side’, and if the aesthetic form associated with these interviews makes their ethical significance sufficiently clear for us to consider them in this way. Jo Pettitt (University of Kent) also considered aesthetic representations of perpetrators. For ethical reasons hardly any fictional work on Hitler allows Hitler to speak, but this approach may be criticised for lending him a certain mystique.  Timur Vermes’s Look Who’s Back (2012) has Hitler as the narrator, however. Nonetheless, by combining the techniques of first person narration and internal focalisation the author prevents any empathy.

Plenary 2: In this session Eugenio Szwarcer and Carles Fernández Giua (La Conquesta del Pol Sud) presented their work in progress on a documentary theatre project being produced in collaboration with the Romanian and German novelist, Carmen-Francesca Banciu. The project has emerged as an unintended outcome of the AHRC network and will premiere in 2019. Szwarcer and Giua described their work as a mixture of journalism, theatre and poetry. A key aim is to avoid intermediaries by placing the witness herself on stage and to avoid appropriation by having the witness as co-author and co-producer. The witness’s story is integrated with image and sound. Their interest is in the relationship between individual experience and collective history and the points of contact between the two. The audience response is a blend of emotion and critical thought. The collaboration with Banciu represents a new departure for the theatre company as they are working with a witness who is also an artist, a literary author who produces cultural testimony in a different form. Bucharest will explore themes that are particularly timely: European identity, the implications of the fall of communism and the absence of an alternative.

Plenary 3: In the third plenary, the conference had the opportunity to view a performance video of REMNANTS by Hank Greenspan. This was followed by a video conference with Hank about the piece and the questions it raises.  Greenspan describes REMNANTS as a study of how, as well as what, survivors retell.  The piece reflects almost 40 years of Greenspan’s intensive conversations—multiple interviews with the same survivor over months, years sometimes decades—rather than single “testimonies.” Greenspan aims to recreate particularly memorable moments within those sustained conversations, when survivors discovered or deployed an image which seemed to “nail” some aspect of their experience, both during and after the war. The discussion following the screening focused on the ethical issues surrounding this particular use of survivor accounts and how Greenspan had approached these in his work. In particular, the response to REMNANTS highlighted the different disciplinary approaches to survivors’ retelling and the play’s own complex position between claims to authenticity, verbatim retelling and ‘Verdichtung’ (poetic compression). You can read a “memo” authored by Hank Greenspan and reflecting on responses to the play here.

Panel 5: Methodologies 2: Working with the Texts. Panel 5 was the second panel to look at the methodologies of using testimony in cultural forms. In this session, however, speakers focused on cultural products, or ‘texts’ (broadly understood). Éva Kovács (Vienna Wiesenthal Institute) explored performances that indirectly use testimony of Shoah survivors as their inspiration. The film Son of Saul, the dance performance Sea Lavender or the Euphoria of Being and the public event Yellow Star Houses. Kovács argued that these performances create a ‘memory community’ and keep testimony alive by engaging senses that include but also go beyond the sound of testimony: dance, image, movement through a city. In the second paper, Helen Roche looked at correspondence and oral history interviews with the former pupils of Nazi elite schools and considered the ethical issues when engaging with such material. Strategies used by interviewees in recalling their past were identified, and the interviewer faced the question of whether to challenge claims by former pupils that they did not know what was happening in the concentration camps. How do German children who grew up under National Socialism cope with negotiating the tension between an often happily remembered personal ‘reality’, and current censure of the Nazi past? Katherine Stone (University of Warwick) examined the publication and reception of Eine Frau in Berlin. Questions about the diary’s authenticity were raised when it was reprinted in 2003. It has been called hybrid testimony – neither documentary nor a work of the imagination, but possibly a collaborative production between eye witness and author.  Hybrid texts and the questions they prompt make them particularly significant objects for discussion since the questions can be asked of other types of testimony. Hybrid testimony often foregrounds questions to do with construction and reception. It also has something useful to contribute to the task of deciphering meaning behind facts.

Panel 6: Literature and Autobiography as Testimony. The speakers in Panel 6 had as their focus the ways in which literary writing, including autobiography, can function as a form of testimony. In the first paper, Melissa Schuh (Goethe University, Frankfurt) worked with an interpretation of testimony that included authors whose approach to writing the past tended towards fictionality (J.M. Coetzee, Philip Roth and Günter Grass). Schuh argued that testimony in the texts of these writers is the product of creative and narrative strategies and that one such strategy is ‘performative contradiction’. She demonstrated that these authors write a life suspended between fact and fiction, which contributes to an aesthetic of performative contradiction that testifies to the complexity of both memory and experience. In this way, Schuh suggested, these writers create a dynamic between honesty and fabrication that causes an effect of sincerity. Alexandra Effe (Giessen University) also considered the contexts in which fictionality and self-narration appear in testimony and, in particular, cultural forms of testimony. With a focus on Dave Eggers’s What is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng. A Novel (2006) and Antjie Krog’s Country of My Skull (1998), Effe explored why witnesses fictionalise and the complex interplay between factuality and fictionality in these texts. In these works, Effe argued, the construction of a ‘collective truth’ may contain elements of fiction that are necessary in order for certain experiences to be communicated and, in this way, for testimony to be put into the service of justice. In the final paper in this panel, Franziska Meyer (University of Nottingham), explored the ways in which literature can bear witness. Meyer examined two texts, Kevin Vennemann’s Close to Jedenew/Nahe Jedenew (2005) and Mara Kogoj (2007). The first text hides the historical footing from the reader (the murder of Jews in Jedwabne), but allows the reader to identify real historical places and times by hints in the text. This meant it was read differently across different contexts and nations, pointing towards the ambiguity of cultural forms of testimony at the point of reception, as well as production. The second text is located more concretely, yet it is also a complex orchestration of competing testimonies about a family killed in Persman by the SS. The interplay of voices allows perpetrator testimonies to be voiced and yet simultaneously silenced and corrected.

Panel 7: Materiality and Media. In panel seven, the speakers considered different forms of media and materiality in the production of testimony. Annika Björkdahl (Lund University) and Stefanie Kappler (Durham University): focused on cultural heritage and, in particular, how locally bound memories become globally relevant – their case studies were Robben Island in South Africa and Srebrenica-Potocări Memorial in Bosnia. They argued that the connection between memory and place is being transformed by internationalisation. ‘Memory entrepreneurs’ have economic, political and social objectives when promoting a space internationally. Memorials are constructed to be understood by a global audience and may also be commercialised, that is, treated as a tourist product. Memory is thus brought away from the location in which it was generated to where the tourists are. For Björkdahl and Kappler this means that the viewing experience becomes more passive, and the memory potentially more homogenised. Ana Belén Martínez García (University of Navarra) explored the ways in which human rights activists who have experienced ill-treatment are using online TED Talks as a powerful new tool for narrating the self that cuts out levels of mediation and returns agency to victims. The victims may give their testimony in an emotionally charged form in order to encourage compassion. Yet mediation is of course still a feature of TED Talks through the involvement of a co-author, editor, or translator and through the communication strategies of victims themselves, which focus on the evocation of empathy. In the third paper in this panel, Christoforos Pavlakis (Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center) described the programme in which he is involved that aims to work with witness testimony and artistic production in order to promote and nurture post-conflict justice in Cambodia. The challenge for the project, Towards a Culture of Peace and Reconciliation in Phnom Penh, was to find witnesses who would generate resources and explore ‘creative approaches to coexistence and reconciliation.’ The project leaders believe that artists and cultural workers practising in historically conflicted communities contribute in significant ways to peacebuilding.

Panel 8: Secondary Witnessing. The final panel session of the conference explored another ethical and methodological challenge in the study of cultural forms of testimony: secondary witnessing. In the first paper, David Clarke (University of Bath) examined two documentary films that observe visitors to concentration camp memorials: Sergey Loznitsa’s Austerlitz (2016) and Rex Bloomstein’s KZ (2006). Clarke argued that Holocaust sites aims to elicit empathy for the victims and a commitment to a ‘never again’ narrative, but that these aims were not always achieved – tourists often engage with sites in ways that are viewed as ‘improper’. This is a threat to the narrative of ‘cosmopolitan memory’ and the supposed ethical purpose of making these sites available to be visited. The two films analysed in Clarke’s paper approach this issue in quite different ways. In Austerlitz, the observational mode of filming mean that the audience are distanced from the ‘inappropriate’ activities of the tourists and there is not space for tourists to give an account of their own understanding of their visit. In contrast, the interactive mode of KZ draws our attention to the complexities and variability of such practice; individuals come up with different versions of what the site means to them. In the second paper, Alison Lewis (University of Melbourne) explored texts by the children of Stasi double-agents and Stasi agents, focusing on Edina Stiller and Nicole Glocke’s Verratene Kinder and Thomas Raufeisen’s Der Tag, an dem uns Vater erzählte, dass er ein DDR-Spion sei. Eine deutsche Tragödie. Lewis asked how we can read these texts in terms of empathetic witnessing and an affective hermeneutics. She argues that this generation’s lives have been impacted by the actions of their parents, but that intergenerational memory does not function due to the silence of the parents and the erosion of trust brought about by their betrayal. These texts thus create an empathetic identification with the authors as victims; the audience is positioned to identify and empathise with the children of the perpetrators. Finally, Sanna Stegmaier (Kings College London/Humboldt University, Berlin) examined Doron Rabinovici’s Die letzten Zeugen (2013), a theatre production that places the survivors of the Holocaust on stage, as their testimony is read aloud. One survivor died before the premiere and her testimony is read in her absence, with only her scarf on stage. Stegmaier argued that the play shows testimony to be both a discursive practice and a performative act. The audience is involved through the need for listening and imaginative investment and engagement. In this way they are cast as secondary and tertiary witnesses, showing post-testimony to be the self-reflexive engagement with memories of the Holocaust after the loss of the survivors.

Plenary 4:  Round table with Maiken Umbach, Liz Harvey and Sylvia Necker (all University of Nottingham) on the project Photography as Political Practice in National Socialism. This project aims to understand how politics and lived experience intermingled under National Socialism. It also tackles the problem of the perpetrator gaze shaping our visual imagination of National Socialism and the Holocaust today since it works with private photographs rather than official propaganda. This creates the possibility of a counter-narrative. In the discussion methodological issues were raised, for example, about the ambiguity of photographs, lending themselves to a variety of interpretations and reinterpretations of the past. Also the fragmentary nature of photographs, capturing a moment in time, necessitates more contextualisation than other forms of testimony.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: