Jens Hoffmann, formerly director of the California College of the Arts (CCA) Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, San Francisco, is deputy director of exhibitions and programs at the Jewish Museum, New York.
The notion of the spectator is a powerful one, though the levels and types of power associated with spectatorship have fluctuated throughout the concept’s turbulent history. Aristotle advocated for a theater that enveloped viewers, encouraging them to purge pent-up emotions through a vicarious, empathic experience of climactic action. While centered on spectators, the Aristotelian view casts them as passengers at the mercy of the action, able to feel deeply but incapable of altering the course of events. For Plato, artist and audience member shared mutually bleak circumstances; the latter was woefully susceptible to the bald-faced lies of the former.
These ideas have reigned supreme for millennia, as have distinctions between performer and audience member, producer and consumer. Plato’s mimesis reached its epitome in the spectacle. Being became having, and having became appearing.1 The spectacle numbed, and the spectator consumed, disempowered and productive of nothing but the spectacle itself. The thinkers and practitioners who espoused and advanced this bleak narrative are also the champions of the viewing public, among them Aristotle and Plato as well as Karl Marx, Bertolt Brecht, and Guy Debord. Each in turn aimed to disrupt conventions that perpetuated passive viewership and reconnect the spectator with authentic experience. Pragmatic steps were taken to empower the audience, to wake them to the cause of their malaise and dissatisfaction. But by presuming the spectators’ need for liberation and awakening, their defenders reinforced a prevailing assumption that viewers are passive and viewing disempowered.
In his book The Emancipated Spectator (2011), Jacques Rancière articulates what he calls the “paradox of the spectator”: the theater needs spectators, but spectatorship carries with it negative connotations of passivity and ignorance.2 He argues for an idea of spectatorship based on an assumption of equality: the spectator is an inherently creative producer who not only consumes sensual phenomena but also constructs what is viewed. Spectators do not need to be activated; on the contrary, when they observe and interpret, spectators are actors. The binary opposition of activity and passivity fails to acknowledge imagination—the capacity to create entirely new combinations from a limited field of sensed stimuli—as a productive force.
While outlining his case for the inherently productive elements of spectatorship, Rancière creates an opposition between active participants and passive voyeurs.3 But the combustible abilities of the imagination need not be directed toward benevolent ends. Detached from the object, the voyeur’s creative capacity projects vivid fantasy onto the watched subject. In one scenario the spectator’s object is unknowing and victimized. By imagining a relationship with this object, the voyeur creates it (in all its unbalance). In another hypothetical situation, the recipient of the gaze is aware of being watched and alters his or her behavior as a result; the victimized object becomes a performing subject, indicating a fluid dynamic between watcher and watched, subject and object, potential assailant and possible prey.
These distinct lineages of spectatorship, viewer, and voyeur meet in a pervasive popular form, reality television. One of the worst offenders in the contemporary barrage of spectacular entertainment, these semi-scripted dramas raise pointed questions about spectatorship and power. Both audience and cast can easily be characterized as pawns of media conglomerates, yet each embodies a distinct type of agency related to the activity of watching. The knowledge that they are being watched causes taped protagonists to behave in hyperbolized ways in order to meet the perceived expectations of a sea of anonymous spectators. The spectators in turn affect the action by tuning in and disseminating reactions through participatory platforms, generating endless feeds of related information. This output encourages others to watch and makes a cumulative case for crowd-pleasing developments to unfold in subsequent episodes.
This example is, in a sense, a succinct demonstration of the cyclical and self-replicating nature of the spectacle that Debord described.4 It might alternatively be cast in Platonic terms as a manifestation of artful deception or as an Aristotelian cathartic opportunity. But the popularity of reality TV does not imply that the masses are asleep or incapable. It does not mean that they need liberation or increased critical distance. Aesthetic opportunity exists even here, in the partially real, entirely imagined, and consistently mercurial relationship between a cast drawn from the public and the public that views it.
Gob Squad, Close Enough to Kiss, 1997.
Reza Abdoh, The Law of Remains, 1991.
Christoph Schlingensief, Chance 2000, 1998. For the 1998 German general election, Schlingensief developed a campaign and an actual party whose motto was “Vote for yourself.”
Forced Entertainment, Quizoola, 1996–. Reminiscent of a game show, this improvised question-and-answer performance has taken place at lengths of six, twelve, and twenty-four hours.
Stefan Pucher with Gob Squad, Ganz nah dran (Close up), 1996.
Einar Schleef, production of Bertolt Brecht’s Mr. Puntila and His Man Matti (1940), premiered February 17, 1996, Berliner Ensemble.
Xavier Le Roy, Product of Circumstances, 1999.