Who Is It For? Practice, Spectatorship, and the Body
On 14 March, 2016, the 10th NoPassport “Dreaming the Americas” theatre and performance conference will be held in collaboration with NYU Gallatin School for Individualized Study (and livestreamed on HowlRound TV). Its overarching theme is spectatorship and the body politic. During the last year, as co-curator (with director and educator Kristin Horton) and organizer of the conference, I have been in conversation with many arts practitioners about what we mean when we use the word “spectatorship.” Most of the informal discussions have centered on the body of the audience, and what the role of the individual spectator is within a group at a performance event. But tangential conversations have also arisen around how the artist is also a spectator of their own work and its trajectory over time. Both strands of discussions are ongoing in my daily life as a practitioner, but it seems as if questioning the ethics of spectatorship continues to occupy more and more of the impromptu dialogues in which I engage with fellow practitioners, students in the arts, and audience members.
Four Questions About Spectatorship
What is it that we see when we see something enacted before us?
What are the demands that a work makes of an audience in terms of both form and content, and how is an audience asked to interpret the demands of art?
How does one truly regard something in a culture of consumerism?
How does one attribute value to work without putting a price tag on it?
Whether you are making work for performance that asks the audience to sit in some chairs in darkness to witness enactments in light, or whether you ask the audience to read a script, interact with an actor, or take a walking tour and discover the event for themselves via instructions, the central questions remains the same: why and how this engagement now?
These four questions are the ones that keep rising to the surface in the many conversations I have had over the last year and continue to have. Of course, thinking about spectatorship is not new. If you make art, you are likely at some point in your process to think about the work’s human engagement, potential reception, and how it may resonate in the body of an audience-collaborator. If you engage in participatory performance, also sometimes called “immersive work,” then the question of audience engagement is central to the design of the evening at every level—from how the audience enters the site of performance, indoors or outdoors, to how the audience takes part in the event itself. But whether you are making work for performance that asks the audience to sit in some chairs in darkness to witness enactments in light, or whether you ask the audience to read a script, interact with an actor, or take a walking tour and discover the event for themselves via instructions, the central questions remains the same: why and how this engagement now?
You may say, hang on, that cannot be the central question. Look, if I am making something where the audience improvises sections every night inside of a rehearsed and/or planned experience, that is not remotely the same as asking an audience to walk into a space, sit in a chair, and simply “watch” rehearsed events go by. But I would argue that while the mechanics of what you do and how you do them may differ when you think about creating a performance, the question at heart still holds, which is the one of the why and how at this point in time?
This question seems to me to contain the riddle of the impossible, which is the instigating point of artmaking.
Every time you are about to make a work of art, you are faced with everything you have done before, and everything that has been done before by others.
You are faced with history staring back at you—a spectral figure—while you regard the blank canvas.
Haunted yet undaunted, the practitioner dares to make and flirts with the power of potentiality.
How will this work demand more of the self?
More of the viewer?
More of us all so that we can remind ourselves of the extraordinary?
Might we risk the impossible through the possibilities that art and the imagination offer?
This riddle of the impossible inhabits the making of art and its contemplation. By the “impossible,” I don’t mean indulging in “shock and awe” tactics—the convenient tools of spectacle. Rather, I define the impossible in art, for the purposes of this essay, as the undefinable limit placed upon the imagination.
A Note on De-creation
Make something. Un-make it. Strip it bare. Find it again.
The act of de-creating text and performance requires a kind of warrior-like vulnerability. It is hard enough to make something, but to then un-make it and un-make it again, until it is newly made? That is something else altogether.
A text begins in darkness. It reveals itself in light.
It rides a canopy of knowing until it collapses into un-knowing.
Into doubt and fear and chaos.
Slowly, it pulls apart its familiar trappings and begins to show itself for what it really is.
I de-create the space between us in order to seek what we can share together.
This thing we have between us, this thing of ours, is a shared experience,
sometimes with text, sometimes not,
sometimes with actors, sometimes not,
sometimes just silence and bodies in motion,
and then a little light.
This thing we have between us reinvents itself from the ruins of what went before.
From old words and old tropes, and things we take for granted, and things we have forgotten about.
This thing we have between us, which we sometimes call theatre, has no value in monetary terms.
It has no value.
It has no measurable impact.
It cannot be quantified, and told what it is, because its definition escapes whatever is placed upon it.
Its definition is its shape, its heart, its light…
Its definition is in the air.
And you can’t touch it.
Even if you try.
It does not have a price.
This thing we have between us is not spectacle.
It is something else.
Something that touches the impossible—the unlocated space where we can imagine ourselves beyond ourselves. Beyond categories. Beyond gender. Beyond racial constructs.
This thing we have between us is something of memory, too
When we are/is
Who we are/is—
Who we might be
This is what performance seeks.
Walking Through Art
I am walking with a friend talking about a play we have just seen. It is late on an autumn night. The play was performed in a big building. A “proper” arts venue. Comfy seats, great sightlines, coffee and wine at the concession stand. The play was one written in a populist vein. It is what some of us in the field call a “play play.” It was written with heart and vigor about the unavoidable centrality of an issue that stares us in the face on a daily basis: economic inequity. The arts venue was packed. It was a good night out, to echo the late John McGrath. And the irony was not lost on my friend and I that we were watching a play about inequity where most of the seats cost upwards of $60 USD.
Let’s leave that aside and talk about the play, my friend said.
And for a while, we did. We talked about themes and structure and character development and elements of production design and more. We talked spiritedly about this thing we both love, which is art and artmaking.
But I couldn’t really set the price tag aside.
I couldn’t really stop myself from thinking that I was being asked to regard and contemplate inequity from a position of access—access to the cost of a ticket price.
But we didn’t have to pay for it, my friend says. We were lucky enough to get complimentary tickets.
Agreed. We were lucky. But still…
Who is it for?
The question hung in the air.
My friend took a cab, as I wandered up to my apartment.
The Cost of Making/the Cost of Doing or Just the Cost
When we make work, we perhaps imagine an audience. Even if it is an audience of friends. A colleague of mine used to say “I write plays for my salon of friends, whether they show up or not.”
I used to think knowing your audience was peculiar. Aren’t we, after all, supposed to be in a roomful of strangers and find ourselves in community? Isn’t that what theatre does best?
I used to think knowing your audience was peculiar.
Aren’t we, after all, supposed to be in a roomful of strangers and find ourselves in community? Isn’t that what theatre does best?
But a lot of the time, we do know who’s in the audience. We invite our friends and colleagues. We invite our peers. We want to be among those we know because they “get us,” or they may “get us” a bit more than others because they’ve seen or read other works of ours, and they have context, and that is a pretty rare thing. Unless you’re a superstar.
I mean, Beyoncé’s work and image, for one, is constantly being contextualized and recontextualized by fans and critics. And yes, she is a brand, a pop star, a phenomenon, and that is a whole other kind of machinery and application of affect—but she is still someone making things. Just like all of us, ploughing the field.
So, context. Yeah. It feels good.
Because having context, having a base from which to work, from which others have a way of understanding what you do, perhaps gives you a kind of freedom to keep doing what you do and to push yourself further. Having context means you don’t have to necessarily explain yourself all the time, and feel as if you are reinventing the wheel. You can trust that the wheel is there, and that even if your friends may not know exactly what you’re going to make, they’ll have some reference points. Because they know you.
But a roomful of strangers?
They don’t know you at all.
So they’re walking in “blind.” And so are you with your work.
It’s terrifying. It’s exhilarating. It’s why we do what we do. But it can also be why we don’t do what we need to do.
Because sometimes we make things out in the wilderness and there is no context whatsoever. And nobody “gets it.” And you say to yourself, well, I will never do this again. I will never try this thing I wanted to try.
And some of that essential potentiality—that thing that makes us face the page with equal parts fear and fearlessness—goes away.
We are diminished.
We allow ourselves to be diminished by circumstance.
And so, the artwork changes.
And maybe, someone someday asks you why, and you won’t know what to say.
Or maybe you will fess up.
Or you just may say, well, you see, there was this performance once that had no proper context, and it was a failure, or it felt like one and so, I ran away.
I ran away from myself.
And I went back to stuff that I did. Stuff that I knew I could do.
And you may say it with a smile, or with a twinge of regret.
Or you may lie, and say, you don’t remember at all.
Listen. That was another life.
My friend—the same friend—that saw the play with me that night says the price tag shouldn’t matter. Work is work. Whether the admission price is zero or $150 USD. On principle, I want to believe that. Because work should be work. Whether the budget is $500 or $100,000. No price on the imagination. That’s the beauty of it, right?
But in capitalism, even late capitalism, even post-capitalism (which some say we’re in), value is ascribed to work often because of where it is seen/shown and/or presented and what the price tag is that comes with it. A “proper” arts venue may be posh, but the lobby, the seats, the toilet stalls, the design of the building or the arts space or the nonspace that is an arts space—all of that is part of the event before the event takes place. The event itself is the art. The stuff on the stage or immersive around you. But it comes with the stuff outside—the stuff that sometimes makes you feel better or more forgiving about the art, because well, it may not be that great, but oh, the seats were nice for a change and the toilet stalls were clean and cared for, and honestly, life’s too short and why suffer to see art, you know?
Pain and Its Glamour
So, when we’re young, when we’re restless and reckless, to quote Adele, there is a kind of outré value placed on pain. Stories of trauma and victimization and violence have a kind of “street cred” than other stories—you know, ones that do not traffic in pain and its testimonies—simply cannot hold a candle to.
In the history of art, the ones who follow the wound, to reference Genet for a second, form a kind of tribe. We are the freaks and outsiders, the outlaws and unsettled queers, restless in our pursuit of the underbelly, the underside, the raw, the ugly-beautiful, and yes, the painful. It is hallowed ground. And I admit that the tribe is one that you grow up with. Because year after year, new members discover Bukowski, Artaud, Sarah Kane, and more. We are the glorious freaks. There is beauty in the recognition of our shared pain, even if it is often romanticized.
But is work made from pain better than work that is not?
Is work witnessed from a comfy chair less worthy or great than one witnessed in a stuffy room in a disused space?
Where do we place value?
So, I align with the glorious freaks. I was one of those kids that read Artaud and wanted too to signal through the flames.
I sat through a 24-hour marathon of John Cassavettes’ movies instead of standing in queue for the next installment in the Star Wars franchise.
A kind of inverse snobbery took hold.
The stuff I loved—the stuff that felt wrought in anger—was real, and that other stuff was plastic.
But was it? All of it?
Over the years, the tribe has expanded and contracted. We recognize each other across the aisle. We end up going to the same shows, the same movies, and we listen to some of the same music. But anger and pain as a characteristic of value and its attribution has begun to feel less, well, “valuable.”
Not that its affective glamour is not viscerally engaging.
But identifying the real vs. the plastic has been harder and harder to come by, especially when the plastic has started to mimic the “real.”
I do not regard Genet, Artaud, Kane, Koltes, and Acker any less.
I am not turning my back on these and other mad defiant dreamers and visionaries that have taught me to recognize the incandescent power of art.
But I am starting to wonder if the act of seeing—the internal and external act of seeing the self mirrored—this act we call performance—has been corrupted somehow by a reification of the exemplary wound?
Saints and Sinners have a Hard Time
When I was a child stories of the saints haunted my Roman Catholic upbringing.
Every night I looked up at the figure of Christ on the cross over my bed. My family was not fanatical in any way when it came to organized religion, but living with the wound was something I understood at an early age, and it shaped my imagination.
It was only natural that stories of sinners became my furtive literary companions. Anything that felt “other” to stories of unwavering sacrifice, purity, and faith fascinated me.
I hadn’t discovered the mystic poet-saints yet—St. John of the Cross, St. Therese of Avila…
They would teach me something else about transcendence and possibility.
Jim Carroll’s Basketball Diaries—another Catholic-haunted tome—and Patti Smith’s Horses, which began with its classic line of defiance of empowerment and self-realization— “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine”—were favorites. And still are.
They are totems of a time. And still feel like secrets that only I and a few others know about.
But one thing that the saints and the sinners did teach me was that contemplation was key to life.
Making time to see.
To be with.
And merely spectate.
There’s a story that novelist Jeanette Winterson tells in her memoir Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? about how the power of language in motion enacts being, the being of the text, but also the challenge to being itself. Art wakes you up to yourself and of what you may be made. Winterson describes how the ability to spend time with such a powerful object—the object lesson of art—carried her through some of the toughest challenges in her life.
When we look at the why and how of spectatorship, and the ethics of making art, when we look at the act of looking, we begin to talk about matters that transcend the constructed self that lives only in the social and political, and begin to consider the self that lives in the realm of the intangible.
When we look at the why and how of spectatorship, and the ethics of making art, when we look at the act of looking, which has to do with the sight underneath sight, the eye of the I, we begin to talk about matters that transcend the constructed self that lives only in the social and political, and begin to consider the self that lives in the realm of the intangible.
The open, torn self. The self that approaches the spectral.
Or shall we say, the self that can be reinvented, remade?
We know of course that there is no one self. We know that the authenticity of Self writ large is a concept of another century or two.
But when we look, when we are really asked to regard how we came to be
In this room/space
What act of possible dreaming takes place?
In his proposition for the performance Apathy, Chris Goode offers twelve character-based scenarios and a series of notes for theatre makers to then make their own pieces. He only asks that the spirit of irony that informs the title in relationship to the scenarios he has crafted inform the making. The scenarios depict eighteen to twenty-two-year-old citizens of the UK—all of whom are eligible to vote. Goode asks potential theatre makers to consider whom these “characters” would vote for, if they would exercise their right to vote and why. He asks us to look at these fellow imagined citizens and realize through art what their potential might be to effect a measure of change.
I imagine a character into being, even if they based on someone real. The chance at a life on the page and one on stage and then a chance to walk into someone else’s imagination and extend the possible field of play—the possible field of enquiry—of being.
I take a book of dreams into my hands and lift it up with no truths to offer, other than little ones wrought in the low light of early dawn—
Truths about how it is that someone sits there and someone else would rather sit there.
Or how a friend stops speaking to another.
Or how someone rises up in the middle of their daily routine and discovers they are capable of being someone else altogether.
I rose one day, s/he says,
and became fox tree forest field string sun feather in the electric swoon of a chorus when the record kicked in and we knew all of the words.
Because they were us
And for a moment I was part of the crowd
And being us was good
Because we were all looking in the same direction
Even if we were all dreaming about different things
I rose one day and you were looking at me with the present-past knowledge of those who used to sit round a fire to tell stories to keep themselves safe
Or just maybe to keep themselves
In this world.