Regarding Spectatorship: Revolt and Distant Observer is an ongoing research project curated by Marianna Liosi and Boaz Levin exploring the notion of mediated political spectatorship.
The project focuses upon the prevalent mode of vision and the engagement of the distant onlooker in relation to mediated political events, critically exploring the role played by mass and informal media as well as by technological devices in the politics of representation.
Recent social uprisings, protests waves, revolutions and coups were all highly mediated events. New “social” media, as well as more traditional broadcast communication channels, contributed to the events, and became as much a part of the spectacle as it’s medium.
The research aims to explore the notions of distance in relation to involvement, spectatorship in relation to agency and vision in relation to action. It gathers together a wide range of questions concerning the ambivalent way in which the role of technological devices and social media within the political sphere is perceived.
The website is the first public outcome of the one year-long multi layered project that also includes a series of itinerant events and will culminate in an exhibition at Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien, opened on November 20th 2015.
Conceived as an ongoing platform of discussion, the website aims to facilitate and stimulate a broad and interdisciplinary discourse around the questions of political spectatorship, offering a rich historical and theoretical context to the project.
The website gathers together solicited essays and archival material by a wide range of intellectuals, alongside a growing collection of cultural references, videos and archival material. Contributors include Brian Holmes (media theorist, culture critic, activist), Vera Tollman (critic and writer), Quinn Slobodian (historian), Sohrab Mohebbi (curator and writer), Oleksiy Radinsky (writer and filmmaker) and Paolo Caffoni (editor and essayist), Simon Faulkner (art historian), Emanuela De Cecco (art critic, writer and curator), Riccardo Benassi (artist).
Regarding Sepctatorship grew out of an initial interest in the social protests that took place during 2011 in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, commonly referred to as the Arab Spring. As these events unfolded, followed by similarly highly mediated political protest across the globe, an ever growing number of people seemed to be experiencing political unrest from afar. Images of protests were disseminating at exponential speed and breadth. New “social” media as well as more traditional broadcast communication channels contributed to the events and became as much a part of the spectacle as its medium. Photos of graffiti with slogans denouncing the autocratic regimes spread across western media channels. Amongst these slogans were also the names of “social networks” such as Facebook and Twitter. Images of graffiti which read “democracy in Tunisia, thank you Facebook” gained much – some would say disproportional – exposure on international news outlets. Many took this as a sign of technology’s emancipatory potential, going so far as to dub the events the Facebook Revolutions. Many others have criticised the voyeuristic character of what they perceived as couch politics and the futility of so called clicktivisim, as well as the historically deterministic view of techno-utopists.
Whether or not technological innovation played a determining role in the mobilisation of popular protest – circumventing traditional, state-run, top-down, media channels – became a topic of much debate. And yet, the notion of the spectator – all those millions of distant onlookers, to whom these images and reports were channelled – received little attention if any at all.
Thus we chose to start our research from simple introspection – thinking of our possible relation towards these and similar events as spectators, questioning our agency and interest and asking how might we be implicated within this peculiar long-distance relationship. Is mediation inherent to the contemporary political sphere? Is political spectatorship intrinsically voyeuristic, or, conversely does it carry emancipatory potential? Is the act of viewing individual and solipsistic, or does it also affect the collective sphere?
The initial interest in understanding and interrogating the effective role that social media and portable technological devices played in the protests in North Africa gave way to a more general diachronic consideration of the relation between media and politics, spectators and political actors, exploring events such as the war in the Ukraine, the protest in Ferguson and Hong-Kong, as well as the role media played in past events, in El Salvador, Iran and France, to name but a few.
Ever since the early 19th century, in aftermath of the French Revolution, newspapers, pamphlets, posters, telegrams and later, radios, amateur cameras and their contemporary pocket-sized counterparts, smart-phones, have been instrumental to the establishment of political communities and the facilitating of political discourse. Media played an active role in spreading, reporting and relaying protests, at times by empowering, and at others by dis-informing, the public.
As Benedict Anderson has written “print-capitalism (…) made it possible for rapidly growing numbers of people to think about themselves, and to relate themselves to others, in profoundly new ways”. And as many geographers have noted, a fundamental aspect of communication is that it in-forms and recomposes our perception of space and time, thus enabling dispersed communities and individuals to feel they are part of a cohesive body politic, an “imagined community” in the words of Anderson.
Over two hundred years ago Immanuel Kant wrote of the French Revolution, focusing his attention at the historical role played by the distant observers of the revolution, rather then that of the revolutionaries themselves 1. Kant too was but a distant observer, gathering what he knew about the events from newspapers and word of mouth. Similarly, Hegel who memorably stated, “reading the morning newspaper is the realist’s morning prayer” has been shown to have closely followed events of political unrest unfolding thousands of kilometres away in the Island of Haiti 2. Both events had an immense influence upon these thinkers, despite, or perhaps because, the fact that their experience thereof was a mediated one, from a distance, as disinterested spectators as it were.
More recently, Rancière has proposed a valuable critique of the very opposition between viewing and acting, suggesting that emancipation begins “when we understand that the self-evident facts that structure the relations between saying, seeing and doing themselves belong to the structure of domination and subjection”. These oppositions, he writes “define a distribution of the sensible, an a priori distribution of the positions and capacities and incapacities attached to these positions. They are embodied allegories of inequality”. 3 Rather then being a passive condition one needs to transform into activity, spectatoship is, according to Rancière, by definition an intricate labor of association and dissociation, a process of learning and teaching. “Every spectator is already an actor in her story; every actor, every man of action, is the spectator of the same story.” Recognizing the act of viewing as potentially creative and generative of new discourses, Rancière suggests a notion of spectator able to transcend his individuality and to interweave possible future narratives.
The voyeuristic or fetishistic gaze and the power relations it might affirm or conduce are left out of Rancière’s purview, and his proposition falls short of a consideration of the technological conditions of contemporary modes of spectatorship. And yet, spectatorship is hardly a static subject matter, nor a neutral terrain. As Jonathan Crary has shown through his scholarly work, the observing subject “is both the historical product, and the site of certain practices, techniques, institutions, and procedures of subjectification.” 4 In other words, the notion of the observer is very much in flux: a terrain constantly challenged, expanded or transgressed. Following Foucault, we can trace the ways through which certain technologies and power mechanism constitute and administer new forms of subjectivity. For instance, the notion of the observer is further complicated when considered in relation to “social media”. As a user, the spectator is addressed with the pronoun “you”, which insinuates a certain level of personal engagement, of immediacy. As Michele White demonstrates, the Internet is widely perceived as a physical shared and immediate space, encouraging spectators to perceive themselves as embedded within the web5.
By focusing primarily on the observer and his relationship towards both the medium and the political event, we hope to shed some new light on a series of age-old questions.
Regarding Spectatorship thus interweaves a diachronic historical perspective, with sensitivity towards evolving media and communication channels, it explores the notion of spectatorship in the context of a range of specific uprisings and events of political unrest, selected on the basis of their particular relation towards visual technologies. The project and exhibition intend to explore – by way of artistic contributions, cultural artifacts, talks and essays – these diverse, and at times contradictory, views.
Finally, the project’s title, Regarding Spectatorship, refers to the paradox that lies at the heart of such an undertaking: that we, by observing spectatorship, are ourselves implicated as spectators.
Boaz Levin (b. 1989) is an artist, writer and occasional curator. He studied fine arts at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem and has completed his Meisterschüler studies under Hito Steyerl at the Universität der Künste, Berlin. He currently holds a position as a research associate at the UDK, Berlin, where, together with Hito Steyerl, Maximillian Schmoetzer and Vera Tollman, he runs the Research Center for Proxy Politics (RCPP). Levin has presented his work at the Transmediale (Berlin), CCA (Tel-Aviv), Former West (HKW, Berlin) and Recontres Internationales (GAÎTÉ LYRIQUE, Paris. HKW, Berlin). Recently, he has co-edited, together with Vera Tollman Filippo Spreafico and Oliver Leron Schultz, the online video-vortex Hybrid reader. He is also the co-founder, together with Daniel Herleth and Adam Kaplan, of Trois Chaînes press where they have published It’s Twilight Again. Levin is currently working on All That is Solid turns into Data a documentary-video-essay co-directed together with Ryan S. Jeffery, which will be premiered in FidMarseille, 2015.
Marianna Liosi (b. 1982) is an independent curator currently living in Berlin. She graduated in Visual Arts at IUAV, Venice. In her research she explores the aesthetics of social, economic and political dynamics, with specific attention to media, and the question of spectatorship and its generative role. Architecture and labour, leisure, exploitation of the landscape, the financial crisis, production and vision are the topics that she has investigated in collaboration with artists, curators or researchers form different disciplines. She has curated exhibitions, film programmes, and workshops. Among them: Leisure Complex, Savvy Contemporary, Berlin, Germany (2014); When spectators work, workers observe, Kunsthuis SYB, Beetsterzwaag, The Netherlands (2014); The imagination sees and Mandragora, a two year exhibition project conceived for and curated at International Museum of Ceramics in Faenza, Italy (2011-2012); and the film programme as part of Do you remember Olive Morris? curated by Anna Colin and Ana Laura Lopez de la Torre, Gasworks, London, United Kingdom (2009). Recently, she held a lecture within A Collective Memory: a process of construction in constant deconstruction organized by Azin Feizabadi, Salon fuer Aesthetische Experimente, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin. Liosi is currently curator in residency at Delfina Foundation (London), within Public Domain – Season 2 (September-December 2015).
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|1.||↑||[Kant, Immanuel: Der Streit der Fakultäten. Piero Giordanetti. Hrsg. von Horst D. Brandt und Piero Giordanetti. Meiner: Hamburg 2005. [Kant 2005].|
|2.||↑||Susan Buck–Morss, “Hegel and Haiti,” Critical Inquiry 26 (summer 2000): 821, 826.|
|3.||↑||Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator, trans. Gregory Elliott. London and New York: Verso, 2009.|
|4.||↑||Jonathan Crary, Techniques of The Observer, Cambridge, MA: October Books, 1990.|
|5.||↑||Michele White, The Body and the Screen: Theories of Internet Spectatorship, MIT press, MA, 2006.|