with: Abbas Akhavan, Özlem Altin, Gilad Baram, Bernadette Corporation, Harun Farocki, Massimo Grimaldi, Sharon Hayes, Daniel Herleth, Darius Kazemi, Ken Lum, Martha Rosler, Falke Pisano in collaboration with Archive Books,David Reeb, Sandra Schäfer, Allan Sekula, Peter Snowdon and Ian Wallace
The exhibition Regarding Spectatorship: Revolt and the distant Observer is the culmination of a yearlong research project and a series of online publications. It does not purport to be a conclusive survey, but rather, through presenting a variety of artworks by artists from different generations, as well as a plethora of musical, literary, journalistic and cinematic documents, offers the viewer our current analysis of diverse, and at times contradictory forms of spectatorship in relation to political events.
Specifically, the show focuses upon the prevalent mode of vision and the engagement of the distant onlooker, critically exploring the role played by mass and informal media as well as by technological devices in the politics of representation. The artworks included in the show unpack the antinomies at play in the relations between spectator, media, political agency, and perceived reality. Different artistic perspectives are contrasted: some works emphasize the physicality of the viewer, and the construction of provisional bonds between onlookers set within the particular dynamics created in the exhibition space; others highlight the clash between emotionally seductive images and the distance created by their technological apparatus; and others still, show the freedom of the distant viewer, who in denying the images he or she sees, finds safe protection behind a screen, be it metaphorical or physical, which then allows them to witness but not engage in the reality represented. Across these different approaches, the exhibition asks, how might the observer contribute to the construction of historical narratives? Is spectatorship intrinsically voyeuristic, or conversely, does it carry emancipatory potential?
Jacques Rancière has proposed a valuable critique for 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.” Rather than being passive one needs to transform into activity; spectatorship is 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.” ² Recognizing the act of viewing as potentially creative and generative of new discourses, Rancière suggests a n otion of the spectator who is able to transcend his or her individuality and to interweave possible future narratives. Yet, 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.” ³ In other words, the notion of the observer is very much in flux: a terrain constantly challenged, expanded and transgressed.
Ever since the early 19th century, in the aftermath of the French Revolution, newspapers, pamphlets, posters, telegrams and later, radios, amateur cameras and their contemporary pocket-sized counterparts, smartphones, 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 empowering, and at others dis-informing, the public. If mediation is even more deeply inherent to the contemporary sphere, how does this forge perceptions and reactions? Is the act of viewing individual and solipsistic, or might it also effect or help constitute a collectivity? Considered in relation to the Internet and its social networks, the spectator–user, for instance, is addressed with the pronoun “you,” which insinuates a certain level of personal engagement, of immediacy. As theorist Michele White demonstrates, the Internet is widely perceived as a physically shared and immediate space, encouraging spectators to perceive themselves as embedded within the web, within a collective of “engaged” users, rather then as a crowd of passive observers.
Finally, as another form of mediation, a variety of cultural artifacts exhibited throughout the exhibition—concentrated primarily within the main corridor that divides the space—play an essential role within the conceptual structure of the show. These materials add details, historical context and references, and act as an aesthetic counterpoint to the works included in the exhibition, imbuing them with a rich and diverse network of associations and links from different spheres of knowledge. The aim of showing this body of images, audio, magazines, posters, and books is to create not merely a continuity of associations as well as an aesthetic relation with the art pieces, but also to deconstruct the horizontal perception of media as a social phenomena in favor of a vertical interpretation informed by a longue durée.
Gathering questions concerning the ambivalent way in which the role of technological mediation is perceived within the political sphere, this exhibition aims to problematize the notions of distance in relation to involvement, spectatorship in relation to engagement, and vision in relation to action. As its title suggests, the exhibition proposes a stage for a self-reflexive gesture: “we”—who observe other onlookers by way of a lens, screen or canvas— see ourselves becoming spectators.
Marianna Liosi – Boaz Levin