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Spectator Participation – Dialogues Between Politics and Aesthetics / Part I

“Any protest is a performance, any performance is a show and every show is a commodity” (Rancière 84).

In this article, we will reflect upon spectator participation – not in the sense of interactivity with the work – but in its social dimension. It is also an objective of this analysis to find out to what extent the participation, or lack thereof, may be linked to a political dimension of art, and the “emancipation of the spectator”, mechanisms through which they can develop their critical sense.

In our contemporary society we witness an “immersion apology” of the experience of living. The “total” experience is valued, and so is the possibility of multiple choices.
 What is the liaison between passivity vs. activity or to observe vs. to participate? Trying to make the connection with social and political activity, we can say that the participation, as we here understand it, has several dimensions and can occur not only in terms of physical participation, but also in stimulating the critical thinking and awareness of the spectator. We find a double bond between Art and Politics, as not only Art has political elements, but also Politics has artistic aspects. It is meaningless to “contemplate” a political act, such as a demonstration or protest. It could be said that social struggles are made through collective union of individuals, and therefore, observing is in this case, insufficient. However, some “observers” may indeed become more informed about the matters that are being contested. Also, in the political field performativity is on the agenda. “Common” demonstrations no longer seem to capture the media and often the “audience”. Lately, it has also become necessary to be innovative in this field, using, for instance, technology, including video art which nowadays has become an important weapon of protest and struggle.

One the other hand, we have the presence of political elements in the artistic creations themselves. This presence can be on the level of content – directly political – although it can sometimes be somehow outdated, as integrating some kind of an educational dimension, or on a formal level; formal, towards the construction/structuring of the work of art or the artists ́ work process itself. In fact “Art only lends to projects of domination or emancipation, what it can lend, that is, quite simply, what we have in common with them: bodily positions and movements, functions of speech, the parcelling out of the visible and the invisible” (Rancière, Aesthetics and Politics – Partilha do sensível 20).

Regarding participation’s historical context, it is inevitable not to mention firstly theatre and performance. In the 1920s Bertolt Brecht, major figure of the Epic Theater movement – not forgetting the important influences of Erwin Piscator –, has revolutionized the theatre scene. Brecht was searching for the audience to become conscious and aware while watching a play. It was a goal that the audience would not be driven by the fable being presented, and also that they would not feel identified with the characters. Therefore, he created the well-known Verfremdungseffekt, the distancing/estrangement effect. In fact, it is due to certain disruptive elements that happen on stage – like songs, characters addressing the audience directly, or actors playing more than one character – that the Spectator recognizes that what s/he is watching is not the reality; there is no more fourth wall; illusion and mimesis are shattered.

Brecht’s plays are extremely well constructed when it comes to dramaturgy, and they do not point to a clear solution – signaling the need for critical participation from the spectator. He is responsible to uncover meaning in the given information and make his own choices. To Brecht the political dimension is essential, but always without being obvious.

On the other hand, Artaud, instead of a content rationalization approach, proposed the Theatre of Cruelty, a theatre of experiences, of violent action, physicality, agitation. Artaud advocated the spectator’s provocation and confrontation, so that people could unleash from inside of themselves their rawest and most primal instincts. His theatre stimulated the obscure imaginary, the one coming from emotions, and with the use of music, lights, projections and other devices the viewer would feel disoriented. Artaud enlarged the theatre vocabulary, since words, hitherto absolutely essential, have been replaced by other means, either physical or technical.

The theatre from Bali heavily influenced Artaud. He saw in this more physical and visceral theatre, it ́s most pure dimension. For him, it was an objective to abolish the classical stage, preferring that the audience would sit in the middle of the room and the actors perform around them, establishing direct communication (Artaud 110).

In this action, by eliminating the stage as the supreme place of theatrical performance, we can perceive a political action, in the sense of hierarchy suppression, where there is no longer a “sacred place”, with boarders that are prohibited to cross for some individuals.
We can thus distinguish two streams of thought, one more reflexive and which searches for an activation of critical thinking, and a second one, more physical, where the spectator actually deals directly with the performers.

After World War II, due to movements connected with National Socialism and the defense of a totalizing collective, the theater was again purely aesthetic. The concepts that embodied the individual in a community and limited individuality fell into discredit and subsquently the Theatre of the Absurd developed.
 At the same time, concerning the field of Visual Arts, the same occurred, with the abstract expressionism movement, and the refusal of figuration. An example is the artist Jackson Pollock, whom the USA used as banner, taking the opportunity to show the icon of the “individual artist” who creates alone, in his studio.


However, the 1960s aggravated tensions and numerous proposals for change and challenges of the social models appeared. The older generation, who grew up in post-war remnants, believed the capitalist “American dream” and consumer society, however the generation of their children, participating in May 68, the Prague Spring, anti-Vietnam War, supporters of feminist movements and anti-racial discrimination, strongly disagreed with this model of society. It is the “disagreement between a society that has put together a show and another generation who refused to be a spectator” (Costa 55). 
In fact, in this decade, the physical involvement is considered an essential factor for social change. Also, with the development of the Fluxus movement, created by Georges Maciunas, in 1962, which advocated an anti-market system art approach, relying on intermediality and sharing among various artistic disciplines. The artists also worked with common materials and everyday reality in spontaneous and experimental activities. Joseph Beuys, Fluxus member, gave particular importance to the social and political dimension of art, and thought that society should be seen as a Gesamtkunstwerk (Total Work of Art), in which each individual could contribute creatively. Only a revolution in the concept of art itself can make it a productive force of political nature, and an essential condition would be that “every human being is an artist” (Beuys 125).

Continues on “Spectator Participation – Part II”, SAMIZDAT December Issue

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