In 2012 I wrote:
“….I use a video camera, fixed on a tripod, to make a real-time registration. The point of view is carefully chosen. Once the video is made the real performance is past tense, it is a single occurrence. From that moment the only way to experience the performance is by watching the video that remains”.
“…It is clear that the experiences of the performer and this audience are completely different. To optimise the connection between these experiences, the medium must be as transparent as possible.
In technical as well as in conceptual terms, I am looking for ways to improve this relation”.
This was the start of a process that brought about many changes.
I experimented with video, text works, cooperated with other performers and finally I set up a festival. This text shows the consecutive steps in the process of changing the relationship between the performative work and the audience.
The text is divided into three parts:
The first part is called Momon. Momon is a private place. It is located in the South of France where I spend my summers. A lot of performances took place here in solitude and were recorded on video. This chapter focuses on the relation between the performer and the spectator.
The second part is called Dordrecht. Dordrecht is the city where I live and work. This chapter is about the interrelation between public and private, about form and meaning.
The third and last part is called Haarlem. It is about public groups, about being involved and not being involved. Haarlem was the city where the Unnoticed Art Festival was held.
Momon is a village in the Périgord. Momon is a place of concentration.
Many of my works come about in and around Momon. These works, performances, are recorded on video, but cannot be observed. No-one else is present, the works come to life in solitude.
The spectator is at a later time opposite a projected moving image.
He is not present at the work itself, he is present at the showing of the work.
Another place, another time, another event.
Performer and Spectator
In 2009 the work Crossing was realized in the woods near Momon. In this work I crossed a road centimetre by centimetre in 30 minutes time. The road was about 5 metres wide. The slowness and control of movement required much concentration. It seemed impossible to really share this physical experience with other people; what I could do though, was to make this impossibility the subject of a work.
Behind the driver of a car sat a cameraman. The car drove the same round through the woods five times, while he continuously shot the passing landscape from the rear seat. During the drive, the car passed the performer just as many times, while he was at a different position on the road each time the car drove by. The camera turned in passing and carefully recorded the man. Seen from the car he seemed to be standing still because of the speed difference. The car’s passenger (the spectator) sees the pedestrian doing something with great concentration that seems inexplicable in his situation. Crossing particularly shows an unbridgeable distance between performer and spectator.
Cage Piece was the first of a series of one-year performances by Tehching Hsieh in the period 1978-1986. Until 1988 Hsieh lived in New York as an illegal alien. On 30 September 1978 he locked himself up in a cage in his living quarters that he had built himself. In his statement he wrote: “I shall not converse, read, write, listen to the radio or watch television until I unseal myself on September 29, 1979.”
During the year that followed a friend visited him every day and brought him food. Each day he scratched a little line on the wall, each day his friend took a photo of him.
Once in three weeks some visitors were admitted. They did not see anything but a man sitting in a cage in silence.
“For me, the audience is secondary. However, without them my performance couldn’t exist”
The visitors were important because they marked the contours of the isolation. They represented the existence he could not take part in.
In Vito Acconci’s performance Seedbed (Sonnabend Gallery, 1972) visitors entered an empty gallery. At the end of the room was a slanting wooden partition. Beneath it, hidden from view, lay the artist. He was masturbating while he directed his sexual fantasies at the visitors above him. He spoke aloud into a microphone that was connected to a loudspeaker in the gallery room: “Through the viewers: because of the viewers: I can hear their footsteps, they’re walking on top of me, to the side of me – I’m catching up with them – I’m focusing on one of them: I can form an image of you, dream about you, work on you”.
Acconci forcefully pulled the audience into his private atmosphere by forcing an intimate relation with them.
The problematic or non-problematic relation between performer and audience is a way of defining the work. To Tehching Hsieh, society’s behaviour regarding illegal aliens determines the form of his performances and – conversely – his attitude regarding his audience. On the other hand, Vito Acconci tries to relate the audience – if need be undesired – to him in their private atmosphere.
A quiet scenery, a view. Then the sound of a car getting closer. It stops, the door slams. A man comes into view. He is standing with his back towards the camera, blocking its view. He lights a cigarette and smokes. After some time he puts out the cigarette and disappears.
The door slams again, the car drives away. Quietness returns.
The car driver experiences a moment of relaxation. He pulls over his car to the side of the road, gets out and smokes a cigarette. The cigarette is the time he gives to himself. His idea is to have a brief break.
At the same time the car driver has a completely different part, he is the person making the video. He stages a scene in front of the camera. He imagines his own back while he – hardly aware – overlooks the landscape.
The spectator probably does not identify with the car driver, but rather with the camera’s position, he will experience the event as a disruption. In his perception the rural calm has disappeared the moment the car driver arrived. The situation is perceived differently by both characters, inside and outside the film. What the one person sees as a moment of calm, is seen by the other as a moment of nuisance.
The work is rather an event than a story. It is not so much that is being told what once was, to a certain extent this is a current matter: a person forces himself between the spectator and the object being watched (the landscape). Irritation may show regarding the smoking man and the unnecessarily running car engine, an irritation that can make you forget that time and location are not synchronised. “Why am I watching this man’s back, doesn’t he know how annoying that is?” Annoyance is used to bridge the natural remoteness of time and space, to bring about a semblance of interaction.
In a real situation the spectator would not stay. He would move in order to restore his view. But the video’s frame deprives him of that possibility; there is nothing else to do but wait for further events.
The work Idle is made in isolation. It is – prepared in silence – meant to play its public part elsewhere and at another time. The event is an open construction in which the spectator has a role, he completes the work by observing, by responding to it from his emotions. Without the spectator only half of the interaction exists, useless. The work is a question. It expects an answer from the spectator, it sets a trap with a semblance of free choice.
My dog responds to barking dogs in films. The year of production is not important. He gets equally excited by a 1967 dog as by a 2008 dog. For some time now, I have been searching for him for the film Barking Dog (1921) by sound-film pioneer Lee de Forest, the oldest footage in which a barking dog can be seen and heard.
Dordrecht is the city in which I live and work, where my house is, where my studio is. This chapter is about form and meaning, about the relation between public and private
The work Idle is an attempt to have the performer and the user through interaction be part of the same process. The work Polder, described in the following paragraph, takes this a step further. The user now becomes the performer, he is able to experience a work directly by performing it himself.
In the morning I am standing for 30 minutes in front of a Dutch painting, Het Gein, by Willem Roelofs (1883), imagining myself part of that landscape.
In the afternoon I am standing for 30 minutes in a field in the polder De Biesbosch, with my eyes closed, imagining the space around me.
Concept and execution
The work Polder is not shaped like a (video) performance, but has the form of the description of a concept. It is written as a script, as a manual. Its execution is of lesser importance. The presentation of the concept is disconnected from its realisation and is open to everyone’s interpretation. The artist may – as is the case here – or may not have performed it himself. The performance actually does not contribute to the intrinsic quality of the (text) work nor detract anything from it.
Traditionally, a work of art is usually an end product with a final shape. The user/owner mainly serves to safeguard the final shape of the work – as determined by the artist.
This (text) work now has consequences for both sides. The artist has less grip on its detailing, and the spectator, or rather the user, may adapt the concept to his own situation to a certain degree. He is responsible for a proper performance. He may take decisions regarding details and as such contributes to the form. That form is not a part of the intrinsic qualities of the work; it is only valid for that particular occasion. Performance has mainly become the consumption of the work. Each future performance will be different.
The performance now has become a personal event, may be performed by anyone and everywhere, at any chosen moment. For each individual performance the work regains its value in and by the person who realises the work. This turns each performance of the work into a unique event that is mainly of personal interest. And if it is being recorded, such recording may take any shape. Such documentation is not of primary interest for the work in a general sense, but is particularly of interest as a personal report.
My notes after carrying out the work:
-I expected that in 30 minutes I would be able to really enter the imaginary space of the painting. By then I should have been able to identify with the image by using the method of perceiving that related to my experiences in nature. So as a start I accepted the painting for what I was meant to see.
Standing there in front of the painting, I gradually realised that it was not the experience of space which I had expected, it was the experience of paint brushed onto canvas. It became clear that the more intense I was looking, the less I would be able to go along with the illusion. In fact I was approaching the painter’s reality.
That same afternoon I went to the Biesbosch to do the second part of the work. In an open field I chose a spot where I probably would not be interrupted. I found the right position and closed my eyes. I did not exactly know what to expect. At first I felt disoriented because of the sudden absence of a visual overview, a bit uncertain maybe, about what unexpectedly might come close. My focus shifted to hearing, to the sound of flying animals, I sensed the wind on my skin. In my thoughts I tried to construct a spatial image out of all this information, but it was not convincing. It became increasingly difficult to relate it to the visual space. I tried reconstructing it, using my (fading) memories, more than just a means of perception of that moment. Maybe the scale was confusing too. With my eyes closed, distances and proportions appeared to alter, everything felt closer, more direct. After some minutes I became used to this shifting perception.
I could just stand there without further consideration.-
Public and Private
A performance is not singular. Even if a concept results in a movement, an action, an event, a sequence, it will always be a presentation. An action that takes place in the public domain will probably be seen, interpreted, leave its traces, have its effects. But even if nothing else than the memory of the performer would remain, even then a presentation has been delivered.
Allan Kaprow’s work Maneuvers (1976) is based on the courtesies of people when they pass through a door. Maneuvers was performed by seven pairs at various public locations in Naples. Two performers passed through a door at the same time in various ways, using a dialogue of courtesies written down earlier. The expressions that were used seemed authentic, but they had been twisted and adjusted, giving them another effect. Meanings shifted, context changed, intentions became unclear. The course of events was discussed extensively before and after and Kaprow saw these conversations as part of the work.
Ervin Goffman published in 1959 The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, a sociological study of general human behaviour. He started from the idea that everyday routines (e.g. putting down a cup, answering the telephone), despite their appearance of the ordinary and the absence of intentional expressive intentions, show characteristics of an – artistic – performance. Every human action, however simple, is being affected by interaction with another person. There is a continuous, intentional and unintentional, exchange of communicative intentions. Goffman discerns the ‘expression the person gives’, that what is being communicated intentionally, and the ‘expression the person gives-off’, those meanings and ambiguities that are not voiced, but that nevertheless are being understood.
To Hannah Arendt, ‘public’ is everything that comes out in the open and that therefore is part of our communal world. The existence of a public realm is indispensable for the human experience of reality. “He who has been deprived of this realm, has been deprived of reality which, humanly and politically speaking, is equal to being seen and heard.” Our experience of reality depends on the external appearance and its confirmation by objects and humans. The public domain offers a person the possibility to be seen and heard by other people, from which he derives his identity. That identity of a person can never be recorded by the acting person himself, but needs confirmation by others. His actions and statements will be included in a network of stories. For that, actions and words must be heard, seen and remembered.
Arendt does not talk about the public, but about public, an adjective. Not a group of people, but that what surrounds people. We consider the world selective, think of certain information as being important and hardly notice other information. This process is needed to be able to organise and manage. We experience the world as hierarchical and through that hierarchy we experience structure. Within that structure, each person is the centre of his own universe.
An Improvised Route (2014)
In the morning I walk an improvised route through the city,
in the afternoon I walk exactly the same route again.
The work An Improvised Route is about intentions. The first walk is spontaneous, impulsive, full of associations and ideas. The second walk, although the same in its sequence and its formal quality, is a completely different personal experience. Now the focus is on memory and preciseness. What the performer wanted to see and do in the morning is not important anymore; the second time it is important how he went about it and in what sequence. Because of the repetition the content disappears. It becomes a set of meaningless movements. At least, this is true for the performer, in the world in which he is the centre.
Somebody is watching from a window in an apartment in a street in Haarlem*. It is in the morning, around 11:00 hrs. A man approaches from the right, walking on the pavement in a straight line, as if he has a clear idea of where he is going. Suddenly he crosses the street to the right and walks into a narrow alley. He has disappeared.
A few hours later, around 16:00 hrs., the same man reappears from the right and repeats exactly the same route. The person, still watching from the window, might remember the movements of that morning for some reason, he recognises the pattern and will start to wonder: why are these movements identical? That what the first time seemed to be spontaneous, without planning, must already have been thought over and organised.
In the walks nothing has really changed, just another time of the day. What did change were the thoughts and considerations of the person behind the window. He starts to think up probable reasons for the events. Who is this walking man? Where is the man going and what is so interesting in that alley?
Because of the repetition, this person starts to wonder about meaning and motives. What was empty before, now starts to fill up.
In an interview with actress Fania Sorel earlier this year I discussed this loss of content because of repetition:
Q:”For me as a (visual) artist, repetition is a way of emptying a form, a method to get rid of all unwanted narrative aspects. For you, as an actress, repetition must also be important, but probably for very different reasons.”
A: “That is right, in theatre it is quite the opposite. Repetition brings deepening, more understanding. It is not a way to abstract, it is a way to connect to the narrative. Repetition is not just doing it again, it is making it stronger. There is always this paradox: We are not the people we are playing, we are lying. How near can you be to the truth? In contrast with (your non-theatrical) performance we are not aiming at the truth.”
Form is public, meaning is private. One form can mean many different things.
* An Improvised Route was part of the Unnoticed Art Festival. The work took place on Sunday May 18, 2014.
Haarlem is about public groups, about the involved and the not involved. Haarlem was the city where we had the Unnoticed Art Festival.
“…It is clear that the experiences of the performer and this audience are completely different. In order to optimise the connection between these experiences, the medium must be as transparent as possible.
In technical as well as in conceptual terms, I am looking for ways to improve this relation.”
The first part, Momon, is about the confrontation of the spectator with the video performance. By means of the work Crossing it is shown that the communication between performer and spectator through video has its restrictions. The work Idle forces a relation that seeks to be direct and equal, but is in fact manipulative and provoking. It is a step in a study into a different relation between performance and spectator.
The second part, Dordrecht, is about public and private. With the text works Polder and An Improvised Route, I turn into a new path. Video as a medium is taken out, the textual concept itself becomes publicly accessible. The spectator is challenged to be the user, to follow the path of the performance, to effectively internalise the work.
In this third part I will use a number of references to show the different stages of emancipation of the spectator and how he turns into an active participant, into a performer.
Finally, I will show how this all has led to the realisation of the Unnoticed Art Festival.
Categories of spectators
Bertolt Brecht was of the opinion that the emotional catharsis would make the audience complacent. Instead he sought to give his audience a critical perspective which would enable them to recognise social injustice and exploitation. This could lead to changes that would come about in society – outside of the theatre. After seeing a performance by the Mei Lanfang company in Moscow in the spring of 1935, Brecht devised the term Verfremdungseffekt for a theatre approach that dissuades the audience to lose itself in the illusory narrative world of the stage and the emotions of the characters. In Brecht’s plays the actor plays as though no fourth wall* exists. The stage illusion is deliberately being disturbed because the actor observes his own behaviour and frequently addresses the audience. Brecht thought it essential that the audience could reflect critically and without bias on what was presented. By emphasizing the constructed character of the play, he wanted to state that reality in society is equally constructed and therefor in theory changeable.
The Verfremdungseffekt is rooted in the Russian Formalism notion of De-familiarisation, which literary critic Viktor Shklovsky (Art as Technique, 1917) considered to be the essence of all art: “The over-familiarisation and recognition with an object reduces the objects to insignificance – it is art that removes the objects from the automatism of perception.”
The relationship between stage and theatre is still traditional and unequal. The audience was trained in the correct way of social thinking.
Augusto Boal directs at awareness as well. The Invisible Theatre, as he called it, does not ask the spectator to delegate power to the stage character (as is the case with Brecht), who “…thus acts in his place, but the spectator reserves the right to think for himself, often in opposition to the character.” (Augusto Boal, 1997)
The strong emotional response, which Brecht expressly wanted to avoid, is being used by Boal to involve the audience fully in the play. He transformed them from spectators to participants.
In Theatre of the Oppressed Boal discusses an example of The Invisible Theatre that took place in a full restaurant of a hotel in Chiclayo. A customer and a waiter argue about the quality of the food and the price to be paid. The incident attracts the attention of the other waiters who, at a later stage, are requested to collect money to pay the customer’s bill. After the incident, says Boal, a debate started in the restaurant about the inequality of income and the wages of the proletariat. He mentioned that the discussion lasted all evening, whereas the guests in the restaurant never knew that they were part of a carefully prepared scene. Boal was of the opinion that by taking part in a real event this would have a lasting effect on the audience’s awareness. Even though the audience is capable of forming their own opinion and to take part in the discussion, the relationship between the actors and the audience (spect-actors) remains somehow unequal. It still is a concerted educational construction with a division of roles. In both examples the so-called theatrical performance is still manifest: there is a group of actors who create an image and there is a group of spectators for whom this image is intended. The mutual relationship is adapted to the character of the era and to social reality, but has not changed substantially.
Kaprow refused to accept the term audience: “The distinction between audience and actor (performer) is the only remaining element of theatrical convention followed by the avant-garde and must be eliminated.” In contrast with this, he described his approach as a non-theatrical performance. He formulated a number of characteristics of the Happening:
- The line between the happening and daily life should be kept as fluid and perhaps indistinct as possible.
- Themes, materials, actions and the associations they evoke, are to be gotten from anywhere except from the arts, their derivatives and their milieu.
- The happening should be dispersed over several, widely-spaced, sometimes moving and changing, locales.
- Time, closely bound up with things and spaces, should be variable and independent of the convention of continuity.
- The composition of all materials, actions, images, and their times and spaces, should be undertaken in as artless, and, again, practical, a way as possible.
- Happenings should be unrehearsed, and performed by non-professionals, once only.
- It follows that there should not be (and usually cannot be) an audience or audiences to watch a happening.
Kaprow’s mode of thought has a substantial relation with Shklovsky’s principle of de-familiarisation. For the form of his scripts, Kaprow used elements of actions and events from daily life. He drastically changed the meaning and coherence of the action so that the obvious disappeared and all substantial opportunities were open again. See also the description of the work Maneuvers in the previous chapter.
Kaprow addressed himself only to the participants who performed the work. There was room for discussion, for adaptations, for initiatives.
Before his death in 2006, Kaprow relinquished the copyrights of the scripts (the scores) as he did not want to regard his initial versions as originals or definitive versions. He wanted the concepts to be rediscovered: “(the reinventor..) is not copying my concept but is participating in a practice of reinvention central to my work”.
The way to the festival
My work In A Train (2013) was an experiment in the possibilities of cooperation, of sharing the experience of performing. The work was carried out in a train, driving at 200 km/hrs., between Amsterdam and Berlin. For In A Train I designed a simple structure for six performers: nothing more than a series of obvious movements, following a premeditated schedule. I asked five travelling companions to join me. The performance was carried out exactly as planned, without attracting the attention of other train passengers.
In this work there were two different audiences:
1. My companions, who were involved in the work by executing it and who, by doing this, were perceiving it in the most physical way.
2. The other passengers in their seats, staring out of the window or reading. This group is unaware of the performance and not involved in it.
I understood that the unawareness of this second group had an important function in the process: it isolated and defined the first group, the participants. It turned these six into an actual team, they shared an experience. I realised that in this I found a way to improve the relation between the work and the spectator. I needed to pull the ‘spectators’ into the performance, to invite them to join, to share responsibility.
Later I decided to further explore this new form by applying it on a larger scale.
In A Train became the basic concept of the Unnoticed Art Festival.
Through this experience it became clear that there was a certain balance between these two groups. The performance became exciting, because the actions of one group were embedded in the ignorance of the other. This contrast seemed to be essential.
When, as a result of that, the concept of the Unnoticed Art Festival started to evolve, it became clear that now also another split was very important: the division of concept and realisation. On the one hand we needed the artists to submit the concepts and on the other there was this other group, the participants, carrying out and experiencing these works. This split between these two seemed to be significant to my research. It would possibly create an open attitude towards the concepts. The performers could, within certain boundaries, discuss, interpret and influence the concepts, individually or as a group. Often they had to deal with practical situations the artists had not been able to foresee and include in their concepts.
When I placed an Open Call to compile the program for the festival, I thought of another advantage of splitting up the concept from its practical realisation: artists from all over the world could take part. Physical distance did not matter.
I then placed another Open Call to attract volunteers to carry out the performances. For the unexperienced performer, the aspect of remaining unnoticed appeared to be very important. It guaranteed a certain anonymity and, by that, a certain freedom in movements. Most of the participants were new to the field, students, and people working in all sorts of professions.
The ignorance of the passers-by isolates and defines the first group, the participants. I tried to guarantee the aspect of remaining unnoticed by keeping the location of the festival a secret to everybody. This way it would not be emphasised as an event by a side-line audience. The participants were only to find out the actual city at the moment they arrived on the first day.
For the same reason it was not allowed to use cameras during the performances (except when the concept specifically demanded for it). Cameras emphasise the special character of the occasion. That would attract the specific attention of passers-by.
There was yet another reason, for not making any visual documentation. Documenting a performance by means of photos or videos would, after the festival, again create this gap between performance and spectator, which was the basic object of my research.
Therefore, I chose to document the performances in another way. Because the festival concept was very much focused on personal experiences of the performers, we asked them to write an immediate response after finishing their performances. Through personal descriptions, we hoped to make these experiences more tangible.
The Unnoticed Art Festival took place in the weekend of 17/18 May. On Saturday morning forty people met on a campsite at the outskirts of the city of Haarlem. Many of them had never met before.
In 2013, the Bristol based organisation Situations published The New Rules of Public Art*. Some of these rules fitted the Unnoticed Art Festival very well and I included those in the briefing that took place on that Saturday morning. We discussed the preferred approach of the participants and the way we hoped this festival would evolve.
There was an atmosphere of dedication, this was a group with a mission. We felt that we were part of something very special. After carrying out thirty-five performances, the festival ended on Sunday early in the evening the way it started, with a shout in the park. We all went home knowing that, contrary to our unforgettable experiences, hardly anybody in Haarlem will have noticed.
On 24 June I returned to Haarlem to find out what this all meant to me. Again I performed two (solo) works I did during the festival. Julie Rozman’s Standing Piece* and my own concept An Improvised Route.
Of course it was not the same: it was one month later and meanwhile summer had started, and it was not a weekend but just a weekday. All the shops were open and no-one had come to the park to enjoy the sun. But the main thing was that it lacked the atmosphere of knowing that you are part of a group. Even though I carried out these works solo during the festival, I then experienced I had a purpose in a larger context.
Frans van Lent ©
Momon, July 31, 2014.
*Fourth wall: Speaking directly to or otherwise acknowledging the audience through a camera in a film or television program, or through this imaginary wall in a play, is referred to as “breaking the fourth wall” and is considered a technique of metafiction, as it penetrates the boundaries normally set up by works of fiction. (Wikipedia)
*Julie Rozman’s Standing Piece: “Stand awkwardly at the periphery”.
*Situations: The New Rules of Public Art:
- It doesn’t have to look like public art
- It’s not forever
- Create space for the unplanned
- Don’t make it for a community, create a community
- Withdraw from the cultural arms race
- Demand more than fireworks
- Don’t embellish, interrupt
- Share ownership freely, but authorship wisely
- Welcome outsiders
- Don’t waste time on definitions
- Suspend your disbelief
- Get lost
-Painting Het Gein, by Willem Roelofs
-No Innocent Bystanders: Performance Art and Audience
by Frazer Ward, Dartmouth College Press, ISBN: 978-1-61168-336-3
–Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life
by Allan Kaprow, edited by Jeff Kelley, University of California Press, ISBN: 978-0-520-24079-7
-Allan Kaprow, Art as Life
Edited by Meyer-Hermann/Perchuk/Rosenthal, Thames and Hudson, ISBN: 978-0-500-23848-6
–The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life
by Erving Goffman, Penguin Books, ISBN: 978-0-140-13571-8
–Situation, Documents of Contemporary Art
Edited by Claire Doherty, Whitechapel Gallery, MIT Press, ISBN: 978-0-262-51305-0
-Bertolt Brecht: various websites
–Theatre of the Oppressed
by Augusto Boal, translated by C. and M. McBride/E. Fryer, Pluto Press, ISBN: 978-0-7453-2838-6
by Marja van Nieuwkerk / Cris van der Hoek
From: ‚Filosofen van deze tijd’, Maarten Doorman / Heleen Pott, ISBN: 978-90-351-3262-7
–Critical Theory, a Graphic Guide
by Stuart Sim & Borin van Loon, ISBN:978-0-184831-059-9
–Unnoticed Art Festival
Facebook pages and Twitter (@UnnoticedArt)
–The New Rules on Public Art
Situations, independent arts charity, Bristol
–The video-work Crossing (accompanied by a text by Lucette Ter Borg),
-The video work Idle
-The work Polder
–The work An Improvised Route
Translation: W.J. Gasille, 2014.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.