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VIEWER BETWEEN CONTROL AND CONTINGENCY

Redistribution of the Sensible. Spectator’s Itinerary

Author: Natalia Prikhodko

Natalia Prikhodko is a researcher and art critic based in Paris. She is currently preparing a Ph.D. thesis entitled Art as a Form of Life: Artistic Practices of the Moscow Conceptualism in the 1970—80s at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (EHESS, Paris). Her research interests concern particularly the social dimension of the artistic creation as well as the place it occupies in the forms of life of different cultures and historic periods.

Designed under Napoleon III whose rule was marked by a particular love for all kinds of spectacle, the Parisian Opéra Garnier was a sensation because it devoted a particular place to the spectator. Its architecture expands and organizes the spaces reserved for the spectator in a new way. Or rather, in its very material organization, it reflects the practices of spectatorship which have already been existing. Precisely, it gives the most expressive form to the fact that the show does not go on only on the stage, but also in the loges, in the hall, in the ballroom, or on the famous staircase of the main vestibule. The show started when nobles and celebrities arrived and appeared on it. From the very entrance — separated for nobles and the people — the opera house defines the itinerary and the forms of social interaction between the visitors. In other words, the institution defines the vectors of movement and the ways of conduct for those who came to see a theater performance. The building of the Opéra Garnier provides a canonical example to show how the spectator’s itinerary is designed and the practice of spectatorship is constructed.

 

What is performed on the stage is directly connected to the tastes, expectations, codes of perception, and behavior which are formed within the existing practices of spectatorship. Therefore, the artistic achievements in art (theater, painting, music, etc.) do not come of some autonomous plastic structure of the artwork but arise from the interactions with the spectator. Moreover, such interactions are not reduced to the satisfaction or a provocation of the public but include a whole complex of social, aesthetic, and political relations. Besides, the very status of the presented artwork is directly related to space where it is presented — with its social nature, its functional organization, its political and architectural framing. All these factors influence the way space is distributed between the artwork and all the participants taking part in the process of its creation and perception, and thus, they determine the practices in which the artworks and the participants happen to be involved.

 

Here we can recall another example from theater. When K. Stanislavsky decides to change the quality of the theater performances as well as the quality of the theater as a place of social and cultural interaction, he starts with the question of space. On the one hand, Stanislavsky reflects on the space of the stage. He says that it is enough to move the objects of a typical stage scenography — for instance, to put on the right a sofa which is usually situated on the left — to disrupt the usual patterns of actor’s play and spectator’s perception [1]. When the familiar landmarks are lost, the performance based on clichés collapses. But at the same time, it emits new energy — the energy of research, energy which makes the actor face the drama’s conflict as a personal, and not just a formal task whose solution could only be found through inner individual work and not through the familiar schemes.  

On the other hand, Stanislavsky transforms the space of backstage too. When he describes the typical conditions of the life behind the curtains of his time, he compares, for instance, the artists’ dressing-rooms to a prison cell and the prompter’s box to a “kennel” which “reminded the medieval inquisition”. Then he concludes: “Endless smoking, cold snacks, herring and ham on the newspaper put on the knees, gossips, vulgar flirting, evil speaking, jokes are the logical consequence of the inhuman conditions in which the actor is put. We considered all these conditions and decided […] that the first money which we could collect for the renovation of our future building will be spent to furnish the actors’ backstage life in the way which satisfies the needs of the aesthetics and the creative cultural life” [2].

 

Konstantin Stanislavsky’s directorship and management as well as Charles Garnier’s architecture radically reorganize the theater spaces of their time and redistribute the components of the sensible experience which take shape within them. And how does it go in contemporary art? What kind of spaces and what itineraries do the contemporary art institutions consider for their visitors? 

 

Today’s practices of spectatorship inherit a lot from the conventions which were formed within types of exhibition space such as “temple of arts” and “white cube”. These spaces were thought of as an autonomous territory of art where the spectator faces an artwork as some absolute, sacred value that he or she cannot but contemplate. However, the comfort of such a contemplative and almost religious position today is deeply disturbed by the real conditions of contemporary exhibitions spaces’ functioning. On the one hand, big museums organize the visitors’ reception as a kind of chain conveyor subordinating all the spaces to the goals of consumerism and management of the visitors’ flux. 

 

 

Here the visitors are more and more forced to follow a pre-determined itinerary; and the more popular the exhibition is, the more difficult it is to deviate from this itinerary. On the other hand, small “alternative” places that do not separate work and exhibition spaces, professional and informal interactions, embed the experience of spectatorship into other social processes. This is also characteristic for some specific situations such as an exhibition’s opening. In these conditions, the exhibition space is shared between artworks and other objects of attention, which alternately impact the spectator’s trajectory.

 

Taking into consideration such practices, we could ask: what sensible content can unfold in these itineraries? Today, many artists and curators look for possibilities to extend the spectator’s experience. However, not all of them include in their research focus and critical reflection those familiar (and, thus, banal) spaces and acts which one has to get through to become a spectator. 

Jacques Rancière argues that the deep effect of art does not consist so much in a transmitted message, but rather “in a bodies’ disposition, in a segmentation of singular spaces and times which define the ways to be together or separately, in front of or in the middle of, outside or inside, close or far” [3]. Thus, a sensible experience depends on how shapes, bodies, movements, narratives are embedded in spatial and temporal structures and are distributed within collective, shared practices. Which elements are activated in a sensible experience and under which circumstances? This question does not only concern a particular individual perception but also, and mostly, the dispositifs which operate in the culture and the social space. It is through them that a singular subjective perception of an individual comes into touch with the perception of other individuals, and together they influence the forms of collective life which reproduce old dispositifs of perception or produce new ones.

 

In the following, I would like to consider two cases where the authors re-examine and redistribute spaces and itineraries inside which the visitor becomes the spectator by meeting the artwork. It is symptomatic that these works are created on a crossroad of different artistic genres and disciplines sliding away from the established categories of classification. Their authors approach the problem of spectatorship not as an exterior entity, but as a specific sensible experience which becomes a part of the work and its demonstrative dispositif.

Prison Architect by Cao Fei 

 

The project Prison Architect by Cao Fei is born from the history of a place — its social role in the past and the present as well as from the imaginary worlds it engendered or hosted. This place is Tai Kwun — Center for Heritage and Arts in Hong Kong where the project was shown [4]. Situated in a building complex of the former Central Police Station and the Victorian Prison, today this cultural center includes restaurants, shops, as well as exhibition spaces, dedicated to the contemporary art and the history of the place.

 

The project Prison Architect is, first of all, a film that speaks of the past and present dimensions of this place. The camera follows two characters: a prisoner and a contemporary architect. They wander around the same place but each of them in his and her own dimension. Their trajectories differ, but the poetics of the film makes them cross. The prisoner and the architect meet in a prison cell and an exhibition room of the contemporary art center, but also on the stairs, in the corridor and in the courtyard, that is, the spaces which serve the functions of the past and the present simultaneously.

 

The latter is the transitory spaces that allow us to see the inner logic of our itineraries, looped inside a particular type of culture. By revealing them, the artist addresses the questions of imprisonment and freedom as such. When we follow the characters’ movements and witness their struggle with space, we realize that the architect’s apartment in Hong Kong whose size and configuration are subordinated to the logic of the real estate market, the white cube of the exhibition room which has its own history of inclusion and exclusion [5], and the prison cell — they are spatial unities akin to each other. Cao Fei puts in the focus of her work the points and the axes of such conjunctions. Due to these, an exhibition room, a prison, and a living accommodation reveal in each other a space of imprisonment as well as the limit of freedom possible in each of them.

 

The artist locates these points and axes of conjunction not only on the way of her film’s characters, but also on the way of the film’s spectators. That is why when you follow the itinerary of a visitor of the center for contemporary art in Tai Kwun and when you become a spectator of the film Prison Architect, you start to feel yourself differently in the very same places that you have just crossed naturally, as a usual routine of visiting any art center. Cao Fei plays with the fact that the place of presentation of her work is, at the same time, the object of presentation in the work. Taking this fact for a starting point, the artist activates the themes of imprisonment and freedom not only in the imagination of the spectator watching the film but also in her bodily presence, in the trajectory of her movements in the given exhibition space.

 

When, while watching the film, you recognize, in one of the episodes showing the prisoner and the architect meeting, these stairs that you have just taken to arrive at the exhibition room, or when you distinguish the prisoner’s cell in that cozy corner where you have drunk a coffee in a break between two exhibitions, then your spectator’s trajectory suddenly gets stripped off the usual experience — the experience of visiting exhibitions as a form of cultural consumption or, if you want, of enlightenment — and starts to acquire new sensible content. The latter comes out of the overlap of various dimensions of the place where the spectator finds him- or herself. Designed by the artist, the axes of this overlap are put right on the spectator’s way as a part of the exhibition dispositif

 

Besides the film, the project Prison Architect as it was shown at Tai Kwun, also includes objects, installations, and performances which appear as a material and spatial extension of the film’s imagery. For example, the plank beds are put in the room where the film is projected, so the visitors can sit on them to watch it. At the entrance of this room, a guard wearing a police uniform sits at the desk and acts as if he registers the entries. Some rooms which, in the itinerary of the exhibition, precede or follow the film’s screening, are conceived to refer to the Victorian prison, such as a dark room with a desk, a stack of documents on it, and a portrait of the sovereign (the young Elisabeth II looks from it) on the wall. At the end of the exhibition, the space of the corridor and the stairs is decorated with avocado trees, while the avocado fruit appears as a symbol of liberation in the film.

 

While the artist founds her work on the real history of the place as well as on the reality of its immanent spatial logic which continues to function in the new context, she does not reproduce the literal facts, objects, biographies. Rather, she builds such a correlation between document and fiction that they resonate in each other and engender a specific sensible experience which belongs simultaneously to the real physical being at the given place and to the space of imagination. 

 

So, when you leave the exhibition, the courtyard you cross does not look the same anymore: you perceive it as strikingly different from the one you crossed coming here even if it is the same one. Indeed, now it appears in a new light, and it resonates differently, for in the film’s poetic narrative it occurs to become the place of the prisoner’s liberation.

 

Dau by Ilya Khrzhanovsky

 

Shown at the Théâtre de la Ville and the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris in 2019 and recently released on a web platform, the project Dau by Ilya Khrzhanovsky presents a new format of visual work and, consequently, of spectatorship. I will not try to define this format but address only one of its proper aspects which characterizes the work’s immanent structure and directly concerns the question of the spectator’s itinerary [6]

 

As we know, the project Dau is born of an idea to make a biopic of the Soviet physicist Lev Landau but along the way it transforms into a work of a completely different nature and scale: 700 hours of cinematographic material filmed inside an “institute” which was built especially for the project recalling the soviet “scientific research institutes” where the actors, or rather the participants who were not professional actors (with a single exception), lived under a particular regime [7]. Considering the volume of the material, a question arises: how to present it to keep it integral and perceptible at the same time?

 

The dispositifs of demonstration chosen by Khrzhanovsky are based on the articulation of the fragments cut and assembled from abundant material. In the Parisian theaters, the full-length films were projected in various rooms, small and big, but always organized as a screening room, that is, with a big screen and seats for spectators in front of it. The visitors could join or leave the screening at any moment. Besides these rooms, both theaters had zones with individual booths where the spectator found him- or herself alone in front of a small screen. Multiple windows appeared on it announcing available episodes; by clicking on one of the windows, you could watch the corresponding episode as well as move from one to another at any moment.

 

Such a dispositif could cause frustration. Indeed, even if you had watched several full-length films, you would have still seen just a part of a certain whole. However, this whole cannot be embraced neither by the spectator nor by the author. It is symptomatic that Khrzhanovsky invites co-authors to make the montage and editing of the different episodes. As for the spectator, he or she can make an impression of the project only by juxtaposing episodes with one another as well as by correlating what has just been seen with what had already been known before (the author designates this principle as an “accumulable story”). Such a fragmentarity is not only fundamental for this project, but it also reflects the very principle of knowledge of the world. Indeed, we can only know the world through its particular manifestations, through certain fragments. And we conceive our judgments of the world on the base of these fragments, either we choose them as an object of knowledge or they occur to our perception accidentally. Thus, by its very structure, Dau reveals the fundamental impossibility to access the totality of knowledge.

However, the true problem of fragmented knowledge here is not the impossibility of such access, but the way to articulate the intervals between the fragments. While any form of propaganda presents a fragmented knowledge as a whole or blurs the cut edge between different fragments to make the narrative appear sleek and homogeneous, the critical art, on the opposite, reveals the joints and explores the ways to correlate different fragments as well as their influence on the spectator’s perception. Among many other examples, I can cite the “montage of attraction” of S. Eisenstein, the principle of composition in cubism and surrealism, the “cut-up” method in the literature of the Beat Generation. All of them question the choice — the choice of certain fragments of life and the choice of the way to join them.

 

In Dau, the watching experience in the screening rooms and in the individual booths as well as the very principle on which it is based makes the spectator face the procedure of choice. Here the author does not simply show the fundamental role of this procedure in narrative construction, but he activates the function of choice in the spectator’s own experience. In other words, he constructs a dispositif where each spectator makes his or her own collage, composes his or her own picture from the available fragments provided by the author. Which episode to choose to watch and why? We can try to watch as many episodes as possible quickly skipping from one to another. We can take the opportunity of an isolated booth to see those episodes that we would not dare to show ourselves interested in, in front of the other. We can stop the episode which shocks or bothers us without being forced to wait until it ends to switch to another one. Building our spectator’s strategy, we rely on our own interests and our own sensibility, which finally define the picture we receive in the end.

 

Such an individual assembling of the work confided to the spectator is also applied to the project’s online version [8]. The fragments corresponding to the format of a full-length film and edited by Khrzhanovsky in collaboration with different co-authors are added on the website as they are ready. This dispositif does not suggest a chronological or any other order of watching. The spectator chooses him- or herself the order of watching and the number of episodes he or she would like to see. By doing this, he or she regulates the degree of immersion in the project. 

 

In the future, Khrzhanovsky plans to build another dispositif that he calls Dau digital [9]. There, various episodes are supposed to appear on the spectator’s personal screen as windows so that the spectator could click on them to choose the one to watch. As in the individual booths during the project’s show in Paris, the spectator could move from one episode to another. However, he or she would still not have simultaneous access to the integrity of the material. While the number of windows appearing on the screen could be significant, their selection would depend on the episodes that the spectator had already watched. Khrzhanovsky speaks of a “personalized” watching experience and comments: “If you say ‘how come, everybody says that there is a lot of sex there, but I don’t see any’, it does not mean there is no sex there, but it means that you have a certain type of watch. Or, for example, [you have the impression that] there is nothing but science. It depends on your experience of watching” [10].

 

The way the spectator navigates through the material, his or her choice of this or that episode, the duration of visualization, the act of pressing the buttons “stop”, “play”, “pause” are literally and materially forming the piece he or she “assembles”. On the one hand, this type of navigation is akin to the logic of streaming platforms such as Netflix. Indeed, Dau, as well as streaming platforms, form a new type of spectatorship that is characterized by a personal screen and by the condition of a lonely or at least a private screening [11]. On the other hand, Dau goes much further in the articulation of such type of spectatorship as it assigns the procedure of choice (in particular, the procedure of pressing one or another button) not only a function of usership but also a function of creation. The project makes its content dependent on the “type of watching” as well as on the movements in real and digital spaces that define this “type of watching”. In other words, it embeds the spectator’s itinerary in the very structure of the work.

The projects Prison Architect [12] and Dau dislocate the usual logic of tempo-spatial relations which defines the spectator’s encounter with an artwork inside the traditional places of a spectacle such as exhibition hall, cinema or theater. It is significant that both projects were shown in places which more or less diverge from the traditional context of demonstration: Dau was shown in two Parisian theaters which at that moment were under reconstruction, and now it is available for watching on a home screen; Cao Fei’s project was presented in a contemporary art center conceived as inseparable from a former prison which is, for the art exhibitions, not just an architectural frame but a heritage providing a context. The unorthodox or hybrid character of these spaces surely became a fruitful ground for the creation of new itineraries and trajectories of perception. At the same time, the shift from traditional forms of places of a spectacle revealed one inner feature which was concealed for a long time. This feature is related to the fact that these are spaces of restraint and confinement.

 

It is symptomatic that the dispositifs of both projects are related to the motif of imprisonment whether it is a prison’s architecture, a closed soviet institute or a loop of a “personalized watching experience”. It seems that the problem of the spectator’s itinerary resonates so clearly here precisely because it is deeply connected to the way such spaces function.

 

The spectator starts to feel his or her own itinerary as an important element in itself while realizing that the space he or she moves through is not a supposedly abstract and neutral “space of art”, but a closed and constructed space. Unavoidably looped inside a limited territory subordinated to certain rules and control (museums, theaters or streaming platforms are such territories), the spectator’s itinerary is not perceived as a “natural” or “logical” anymore. Now it is experienced more as a predetermined path where the (im)possibilty of deviation carries the feeling of struggle even if it is a purely hypothetic one.

 

A true struggle is present in the destiny of the artworks’ heroes rather than in the spectators’ experience which remains an experience of cultural consumption. However, the singularity of these projects comes out (among other things) of the feeling of complicity to the experience which is directly connected to the spaces of restraint and confinement. Such a space could have been perceived as a sort of external condition to the artwork, but the authors imbed it in the inner structure of the work. They set their spectators’ itinerary through the points where this space reveals itself, unfolding and resonating in multiple contexts and states — bodily and mental, real and fictional, historical and present. Thus, the spectator turns out to be complicit to a struggle with the space of confinement through his or her own bodily experience of following a constructed itinerary. Hence, this complicity transforms the quality of the spectator’s experience converting it into a new perception of the spectacle industry and its places.  

1. Stanislavsky K. My Life in Art // Collected Works in eight volumes. Vol. 1. M.: Iskusstvo, 1954 (in Russian).

 

2. Ibid.

 

3. My translation from French. Rancière J. Le spectateur émancipé. La Fabrique éditions, 2008. P. 61.

 

4. The project was the main part of Cao Fei’s solo exhibition A Hollow in A World Too Full, 8 September 2018 — 4 January 2019, Tai Kwun. More about the exhibition: ​​https://www.taikwun.hk/en/programme/detail/a-hollow-in-a-world-too-full/185

 

5. Weibel P. Beyond the White Cube // Weibel P., Buddensieg A. (eds.). Contemporary Art and the Museum: A Global Perspective. Karlsruhe: Hatje Cantz, 2007. P. 138—146.

 

6. Here I analyze one aspect of spectator’s experience which seems to me the most interesting and containing the potential of a critical experience. Another aspect of the project as it was shown in Paris, appears to be a dead-end and is no more than a pure spectacle and attraction. I analyze it in my review: Prikhodko N. DAU, une œuvre d’Ilya Khrzhanovsky (2008-2018) // Histoire Politique. 28.03.2019. URL: https://www.histoire-politique.fr/index.php?numero=43&rub=comptes-rendus&item=696

 

7. I leave the analysis of this regime outside the present article and send to the discussion which unfolded in the specialized and popular media. For different positions, see, for example, the articles by Anton Dolin and Maria Kuvshinova.

 

8. The online platform of the project: https://www.dau.com/en/

 

9. I. Khrzhanovsky speaks about it, for example, in the conversation with Gennadi Kostrov and Elena Petrovskaya which took place online on April 30, 2020. See: Project Dau: between art and anthropology. URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N_-VKC6Hk0M&fbclid=IwAR1lnGB5v1fXGK3GkJ09R_rKXwXJuaMANNRqMJ0q3JwilfDG2fjsdJ-c6Mw

 

10. I. Khrzhanovsky explains how it is made technically: each unity of material is associated to a number of tags, the system analyses the tags of the watched material and on its basis suggests new episodes. Ibid.

 

11. For an analysis of the streaming platforms spectatorship and its loneliness see: Candeloro C. Life-Edit. A Companion to Streaming and Solitude. URL: http://www.fondazioneprada.org/project/life-edit/

 

12. Here I mean the specific form the project took in the show at Tai Kwun.