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Rallying 'round the past

Reenactments of old protest speeches stir emotions, but do they spur action in the present?

On a lovely, sunny afternoon last Saturday, a young man spoke from a temporary podium to a small crowd near the Brewer Fountain on Boston Common. As video cameras on tripods rolled, he called for the impeachment of the US president and vice president and urged his listeners to resist the war through acts of civil disobedience such as refusing to pay taxes. People in the audience vigorously applauded and shouted out words of agreement.

But it was not President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and the war in Iraq that the man was talking about, even if that's who and what the applauders had in mind. His subjects were President Nixon, Vice President Agnew , and the Vietnam War. And the words he spoke were not his own. They were delivered at an antiwar rally more than 35 years ago, close to this same spot on the Common, by Howard Zinn , a social activist, author, and Boston University professor who is best known today for his book "A People's History of the United States." The man at the podium was in fact a professional actor, Matthew Floyd Miller , hired by artist Mark Tribe to reenact one of the most memorable protest speeches of the Vietnam era.

The event was part of a program called "Port Huron Project," a series of reenactments planned and produced by Tribe, an assistant professor of modern culture and media at Brown University. His project is named after the "Port Huron Statement," a manifesto of the Students for a Democratic Society written by SDS members in Port Huron, Mich., in 1962.

Last September, the first of Tribe's reenactments took place in Central Park, New York, where an actress delivered a speech originally given there by Coretta Scott King in 1968. This Thursday, the third installment in the series, a reenactment of a speech delivered by SDS president Paul Potter in 1965 in Washington, D.C., will take place near the Washington Monument.

Standing in the audience and listening to Zinn's speech being delivered by Miller with coolly passionate conviction was for me a strange, almost surrealistic experience. The year the speech was originally made, 1971, was the year I graduated from high school. Revolution was in the air back then, even in Saco, Maine, where I grew up. The world was electric with a sense of new possibilities -- social, political, and cultural. If a nationwide grass-roots movement of young people could help stop a war that was being conducted by the world's most powerful government, then almost anything seemed possible. And as I listened to Zinn's words, I could feel that old sense of euphoria rising up in me again -- only to collide with a very different, far less optimistic sense of today's reality.

Reenactment has become a familiar genre in contemporary art. Taking off from a popular re - creational activity in which participants dress and act out episodes from historic wars, artist reenactors restage historic events not to escape into adventurous fantasies of the past but to prompt alternative thinking about history and contemporary politics and ideology. In 2001, for example, the British artist Jeremy Deller produced a reenactment of a 1984 miners strike in Orgreave, South Yorkshire, England. His film of that event was featured last spring in "Ahistoric Occasion: Artists Making History," an exhibition at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art that explored ways of re-representing history by 11 well-known artists.

In popular culture, recycling the old is everywhere. There are new versions of old movies such as "Hairspray" and "Nancy Drew." Tribute bands reenact the music and performances of classic rock groups, and reunited rock groups reenact themselves. Television reenacts the past all the time, from "Deadwood" to "That '70s Show." And clothing fashions are permanently on recycle.

In contemporary art, too, it's hard to find anything that's not an update of something that was new years ago, whether it be Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Minimalism, or even Conceptualism. In 2005 at the Guggenheim Museum, the veteran performance artist Marina Abramovic presented "Seven Easy Pieces," in which she reenacted famous extremist performances by Vito Acconci, Bruce Nauman, herself, and others.

A positive take on all this might be that American and European cultures are in a retrospective, ruminative mood. After a century of mind-boggling innovation in both the sciences and the humanities -- innovations that have not brought about the global utopia some modern visionaries hoped they would -- we have lost faith in the new, and we have entered a period of looking back and trying to assess and digest where we have been and what it has all meant.

The negative view would be that our artistic culture has run out of creative energy and now is resorting to a kind of mindlessly opportunistic self-cannibalism.

In any case, when artistic reenactment and contemporary political activism coincide, as they do in Tribe's project, it raises some fascinating and some troubling questions. If, for example, the purpose is to arouse opposition to the war in Iraq in particular and, more generally , to encourage greater political awareness and involvement, isn't treating an old political speech as a Duchampian found object and importing it into the insular realm of avant-garde art a rather unlikely way of effecting real political change in the real world? Is there a risk of trivializing the issues by funneling them into a kind of sophisticated entertainment for art-world cognoscenti? How different, after all, is this from creating animated tableaus in a waxworks museum for liberal intellectuals?

Yet for me the event at the Common was undeniably stirring. There was an odd sense of chronological dislocation, too, for though the speaker seemed to be addressing people in the present, he was, in a theatrical sense, speaking to an invisible audience, a crowd with a very different sense of the moment. That audience dispersed many years ago, yet one felt it reconvene as a ghostly presence.

It's worth noting that Tribe, born in 1966, was a child the year Zinn gave his speech. So his project, like those of other reenactors his age, is a quest not to understand his own generation so much as to connect with that of his parents and with the culture and consciousness that shaped them. It is, ironically, the opposite of what happened in the '60s, when young people typically found themselves by breaking away from their parents and rejecting their parents' values. Tribe's father, incidentally, is Laurence Tribe, the famous lawyer, constitutional law expert, and Harvard Law School professor.

Tribe will distribute videos of his reenactments on the Internet and through the sale of DVDs. You can see the Coretta Scott King reenactment at www.porthuronproject.net. But the "Port Huron Project" is not likely to revive the political spirit of the '60s and early '70s on a broad scale, not by itself, anyway. It's too intellectual, too academic to have that kind of popular appeal. But it might prompt some people to reflect, and looking backward could be a way to begin reimagining a new, more promising future.

Ken Johnson can be reached at kejohnson@globe.com.

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