Rome/USA: the Endless Reenactment

The American entanglement with Roman ideas and aesthetics is a core aspect of the originality of the American imaginary. This extends back to the founding of the country and is curious, as the US was essentially founded as a disentanglement from an Empire. However as Caroline Winter notes below, the American Romanization was precisely about maintaining a notion of Nationhood that constantly debated and restructured the line between Republic and Empire. Today, like 200 years ago, Americans wonder: “Are we Rome?”; And, as she points out, this question is consistently asked within American history. As she notes Empires produce both violence and cosmopolitanism, as in the 19th Century experience of London, which swallowed the world into one city. The sense of tragedy and possibility still course through that city’s neighborhoods (Daltson, eg.) Today, after the imperial presidency of Bush – Americans ask again: are we an empire or a republic; in other words, if we are Rome, which Rome are we?

This question interests me generally, but I am more specifically interested in the other possibilities for auto-critique offered by the Rome/USA dualism, In a few projects I’ve been drawn to self-reflective recoveries of the Roman recovery itself.

For example, in an ongoing project on the reconstruction of the polluted atmospheres of past American cities, I turned to a Roman form – the “triumph” – to articulate a possible critical reconstruction/reenactment. The image and description below is for the proposed “Object for an Atmospheric Triumph.” It engages with a serious subject, but it’s supposed to be a bit funny:

“The famous “triumph” of Republican and Imperial Rome was a celebratory parade of the victorious and the vanquished. Through the eyes of contemporary historian Mary Beard, triumphs were teeming landscapes — of warriors, monumental objects, exotic animals, and material stretching through a city’s streets. Soldiers marched in progression and the cumulative material of the lands they conquered were paraded as well.

Cognizant of the militaristic and imperial origins of the triumph, the proposed Object for an Atmospheric Triumph nevertheless attempts an enthusiastic, yet critical, engagement with this urban landscape of victory. The Object for an Atmospheric Triumph is an installation consisting of a series of images of people parading a sizeable square helium balloon that displays images of American urban air in the 19th century and the deflated balloon itself. The balloon visualizes the smoky, sooty, coal-ridden air of American cities of the past; but in its absolute difference from our contemporary American atmosphere, the object marks the sublimation of this particular airborne environment in the United States.

The Object for an Atmospheric Triumph is a contemporary reminder of our victories over the disturbing atmospheres of the past. In viewing images of contemporaries celebrating the triumph over a former polluted atmosphere, it enables us to understand historical successes and relocates contemporary environmental crises within a more monumental/historical perspective. It also humorously transforms a militaristic spectacle over foreign lands into a more powerful call for future speculation and activity. “

We will see where this project goes. But moving along, the reconstructions of Roman reconstructions have captured many art practices. One other project in this category is Duke Riley’s Naumachia staged at the Queens Art Museum. Naumachia were Roman reconstructions of naval battles. Like Triumphs they were violent reconstructions of historical events that reflected the Imperial/Republican aspirations of the Roman state. Riley’s Naumachia is used in the classic (or “classical”) American form, as a touchstone of critical assessment. Riley asks:

“With America beset by two wars overseas and economic recession at home, Riley figured it was time to revive the debauchery of the Roman age. On Thursday, August 13, he will host a modern-day naumachia in a big reflecting pool near the Unisphere (the imposing globe sculpture) in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. The spectacle will include lots of model ships and role-playing combatants waging war “with baguette swords and watermelon cannon balls.”

The video of the event is here, among many more on Youtube.

Triumphs, Naumachia’s, American Gladiators, the rise of Latin again and again, Rem Koolhaas’ recent reconstructions of Rome, this is an ongoing project deserving of a bit more serious attention. The future is almost invariably a reconstitution, as the neo-Archigrammian aesthetics of the present demonstrate. If that is so, if it’s always first as tragedy, then as farce, it’s time to grapple with the seriousness of the latter, farcical possibilities – albeit with some sense of what we are really doing. American self-consciousness has this twisted and fascinating link to the Roman – it’s not going to be about column orders – explore it.


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