Imagining the Audience: A two-day seminar in Stockholm
"Imagining the Audience" at Bio Rio, Stockholm, Sweden
With recent debates around post-human, object-oriented and systems based practices which emerged during dOCUMENTA (13) still resonating through conversations in the weeks following the exhibition, the fate of the viewer proved a fertile concern for the two-day seminar ‘Imagining the Audience: Viewing Positions in Curatorial and Artistic Practice’ organized by Mobile Art Production, the Swedish Exhibition Agency, and CuratorLab at Konstfack (as part of which I was there as a curator delegate) at Bio Rio, Stockholm. Notably, the fact that the event was being held in a cinema was an early reminder that one audience had already made way for another.
Phil Collins, ‘This Unfortunate Thing Between Us’, 2011
In their respective presentations, artist Phil Collins and curator Raimundas Malašauskas both spoke about the possibility of closing the critical distance between the viewer and the subject – in Collins’s words, ‘offering the imagined presence of the other … [which is] excised from representation.’ Collins’s projects have taken him to zones of conflict in Lebanon, the West Bank and Northern Ireland, fuelled, he explained, by an emotional relationship with his subjects and a fervent distrust of rational or spectacularized media viewpoints. In a personal letter addressed to and read aloud to the audience, he traced his affinity with the practices of Swedish artists Annika Eriksson and Annika Ström, whom he admired for ‘not alerting people to the fact of the art work […] softening the edges of the art encounter, to become the thing itself.’ In his own work, rather than identifying with his subject, Collins seeks a complete dissolution of the self by entering a ‘double bind of fears and desires’. With fascinating insight, he described how the stage he set up for karaoke in The World Won’t Listen (2005) and the live TV event he initiated in This Unfortunate Thing Between Us (2011) became an affective realm for both participants and viewers to enter where ‘shame is a productive force’.
Marcos Lutyens and Raimunduas Malasauskas, ‘Hypnotic Show’, 2012
Recounting the beginnings of his ‘Hypnotic Show’ (2012), presented in collaboration with artist and hypnotist Marcos Lutyens in the Karlsaue Park at this year’s Documenta, Malašauskas visibly gleamed at the thought that they had come up with the most dematerialized show possible, by creating an exhibition ‘in the brain of the audience’. As he described the participants’ state of ‘paradoxical wakefulness’ I was reminded of Alfred Hitchcock’s prediction that in the future we wouldn’t need complications such as actors (whom he found frustrating), or an auditorium, but cinema could be simulated technologically directly behind our eyes.
Eija-Liisa Ahtila, ‘Horizontal’, 2011
In her presentation, film theorist Annika Wik announced how we have already achieved a level of Deleuzian ‘camera consciousness’, enabling cinematic experiences to occur anywhere the viewer is. She suggested how works such as Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s Horizontal (2011), a monumental 6-channel HD projection of a tree on its side, might pull our attention to the limitations of representation within the space of the gallery. By moving from ‘an ocular to a physical experience of film’, viewers became aware of their own seeing, feeling the impulse to lie down to watch the projection.
Paul O’Neill’s ‘Our Day Will Come’
Summarizing the historical context for this inter-subjective affective turn, Paul O’Neill identified three waves in which the modern audience has been conceived: from Marcel Duchamp’s conception of the viewer as the ‘completer of the text’; to the communality implied by the second wave of relational practices and biennials; through to current engagement in ‘messy’, durational and embedded practices which, quoting Maria Lind, ‘depend on agency beyond the known’. Referring to these third wave, co-productive projects which emerged after the New Institutionalism of the 1990s as artists turned from institutional critique towards a dialogical engagement with their audience, O’Neill gave examples such as the ‘Trekoner Art Plan Project’ (2001) curated by Kerstin Bergendal with artists including Nils Norman and Jakob Jakobsen, the Serpentine’s Edgware Road Project, ‘The Centre for Possible Studies’ and his own recent free-school project, ‘Our Day Will Come’ (2011) in Tasmania. Resisting any political interpretation of these curatorial projects, he underlined that where an artist might be recognized as a consultant or educator, ‘the good ones will always leave before their complete instrumentalization’. Suggesting that where socialized processes are necessary for the work to emerge, this disguise detaches, rocket-like, in the subjective production of criticality in the artist and audience member.
Nada Prlja, ‘Peace Wall’, 2012
Joanna Warsza, associate curator of this year’s Berlin Biennale, ‘FORGET FEAR’, which was widely criticized for misjudging its audience, talked energetically about non-conciliatory practices since the Futurists, where artists have identified themselves as committed political subjects creating a rupture amongst their unwitting audience. Speaking about one project from the Biennale, Nada Prlja’s Peace Wall (2012), which literally divided inhabitants of a street in Berlin’s Kreuzberg, demarcating where Prlja had judged the extent of gentrification in the area with a 12-metre-long, five-metre-high barrier. Contrary to the well-meaning tenets of New Institutionalism, Warsza consciously avoided any prior consultation with the community affected by the blockade, beyond receiving permission from the council to install it for the duration of the event. And sure enough the response was immediate: the surface of the wall was quickly taken over by vandalism and even opportunist advertising by a local hotel; followed by attempts to dismantle it; there were daily attacks directed at the artist and curatorial team by the media; and finally a candlelight vigil after it was removed. Warsza explained how despite the fact the work was taken down two weeks earlier than planned, and although it was an exhausting project to manage, she believed that the audience’s self-organization around the work countered the short-term nature of the biennale. She ventured that artists and curators should engage social workers to continue the chain of social responsibility initiated by O’Neill’s ‘third wave’ projects.
Annika Wik’s presentation at ‘Imagining the Audience’ at Bio Rio, Stockholm
In our current technological paradigm, where experience is increasingly autonomous, it is telling that the question of the self is placed centrally within each of these projects: our reactions make up the feedback that informs their development, moving the viewer from their position in the audience to being a witness or the subject of the work. One could say that where institutional critique succeeded in debunking the notion of the white cube, these projects quickly dismiss the presumed neutrality or passivity of the audience member, often citing their participation as a beginning point or crux of the work.
Shama Khanna is a curator and writer based in London. She is the Curator of the Thematic Programme at the Oberhausen International Short Film Festival, Germany 2013.