I probably don’t have to tell you that Austin is a vibrant, exciting place to live and work: with a killer live music scene, ubiquitous tacos, and barbecue that’ll make you weak in the knees, it certainly ranks near the top of my favorite cities in America list.
That said, one of the benefits of living in Austin has also been having opportunities to explore other parts of Texas, from Marfa to Houston. This past weekend, I decided to venture out of the Austin city limits to Dallas, a city I had only ever experienced through way too many layovers at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.
Though Dallas has its share of tourist destinations, my motivation was research-related. At the moment, I’m knee-deep in my Master’s Report, which explores representations of John F. Kennedy’s assassination in two video games, and how their odd, perhaps ethically questionable gamification of the event – an incredibly traumatic moment in American history – reconfigures and negotiates our understanding of history and politics. What kind of residue is left in our historical memory if we play these games? What do they do to our imaginations of power, official state accounts of history, our ability to interact with history and meaning-making? How do we understand history if we only experience it virtually?
But to me, a 25-year old, Kennedy’s assassination always felt remote, a moment in a textbook rather than a lived, traumatic experience. So I embarked on a journey to the place where it happened, to make it feel as real as it probably could to someone who was never there: Dealey Plaza, and the Texas State Book Depository, now a museum dedicated to Kennedy and the assassination.
The Sixth Floor Museum relies on an audio tour that guides you through various points of the exhibit, offering both pure narration of the museum’s holdings (mostly documents, photographs, and videos) and first-hand accounts from witnesses and public officials. After learning about Kennedy’s early life and initial moments of the presidency, I found myself standing in front of the window believed to have been Lee Harvey Oswald’s vantage point from where he fired three shots. But the museum does not permit visitors to approach or glance out that window at the street below: it is blockaded by glass, meaning I could not come within fifteen feet of the storied spot. Rats.
The second half of the museum explores the aftermath of the assassination through a relatively homogenous collection of artifacts – photographs, stills from the few films we have, newscasts – relayed largely through the media. And, based on those holdings, I really got a sense of how mediated the assassination was even for people living in 1963. This was partially out of necessity, as there was no quicker way to spread the word about the tragedy than over the wire and through news programs. But it’s also because several people in the crowd were snapping photographs to document the President’s presence in Dallas, a signifier of having been there when Kennedy was, too. They saw the president and the assassination through lenses; so do we.
The compulsion to document through photography and, in a few cases, through film, has invigorated debates about the true story of the assassination since 1963. The only reason folks have come up with detailed alternate theories and accounts of how Kennedy was killed – and why such theories remain contested, hashed over, pervasive – is because we can continually pore over photographs and film made by everyday citizens in Dallas.
Ironically, the museum does not permit photography or recording indoors, so a moment in history that remains salient in public consciousness due to those media halts further documentation through visual and aural media. After leaving the museum, I felt a sense of anxious incompleteness: I hadn’t documented my presence at this very fraught place except in scrawling a few notes in my notebook. I wanted to photograph, as a means of remembering the details of the exhibition and of signifying to myself and others that I had been to the actual place.
Of course, once I left the building, I spent some time photographing its exterior. I was struck by how moving being there was, but also how utterly familiar it was: I had seen all of it countless times before in the Zapruder film, in photographs, in the video games that I’m studying. And it was exactly as expected.
But in spite of that familiarity, there was also a pall cast over my experience of Dealey Plaza, the depository, the grassy knoll. At no point did I feel a stronger sense of sadness than I did when I first saw the white Xs painted on the street, signifying, “Kennedy was shot here and here.” Those Xs connected the assassination with actuality – it happened in this space, on this concrete, not in the virtuality of film and television and photography and video game. I did not expect to feel distressed, but the reality of the assassination was striking.
The significance wasn’t lost on the tourists who visited the area, too: several visitors asked to have their picture taken over or near the X, ostensibly to signify presence: “I was at this place. This is where it happened.” I was initially troubled by that impulse; who would want a memento of visiting the spot of a deeply tragic moment? Isn’t such a practice crass at best and unethical at worst?
But considering my similar impulse within the museum, and my motivations for coming to Dallas in the first place, I can’t judge these people. Documenting their presence there could be a means of connecting, of making the assassination more real to them. And in a cultural moment where mediation and removal from history and politics is the norm rather than the exception, an impulse to make history more personal is laudable.
At dusk, only 5 hours after I arrived in Dallas, I returned to Austin. But Austin lacks the aura of weighty historical trauma that permeates Dallas for me. Nevertheless, I find myself thinking back to the museum and the plaza with a measurable degree of real sadness.