posted by: Seth Nehil
“In societies dominated by modern conditions of production, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation.” – Guy deBord, Society of the Spectacle
At the beginning of Jerome Bel’s performance, plain white lights rise on an almost empty stage and the two performers enter in street clothes to sit across from each other and talk. One could ask if Jerome and Pichet were performing as themselves, or if they were performing at all. Yes, there was a script of sorts, but no acting in the conventional sense. In this, there is a denial of performative conventions, an act of leveling which brings the performers closer to us as fully fleshed humans – Jerome and Pichet. At the same time, we still find ourselves sitting passively in theater seats, watching actions of others which take place in a defined and delimited space. Jerome described this exact problem quite well during the course of the performance, retelling his reaction to deBord’s seminal text. To paraphrase, his solution was to have a performer stand on the stage, doing nothing, to puncture the fourth wall – to produce a recognition that “I am here, you are there, there is no difference between us, we are equal.”

Attending so many performances within a brief amount of time can allow for connections to be made across disparate approaches. Observing these various performance strategies, I found that the theme of the Society of the Spectacle kept asserting itself. It must have been the most referred-to text during the 10 days of T:BA (at least in my own personal trajectory.) In dealing with the problem of spectacle, we see a shift from concerns about how to create effective images to concerns about how to create effective social relationships. In doing so, theater recognizes that it is a very special form of relationship, one that is loaded with assumptions, inequalities and power dynamics. How can a performer position him or herself within a relationship that inherently creates separation? How can we create immediacy within a maze of mediated representations?
I found that performers tended to deal with the issue in one of two ways (roughly speaking). One group attempted to use spectacle as a tool against itself, in a process of self-destructive cannibalism. This approach was taken up by Reggie Watts, for example, in his barrage of fragmentary clips, skits and scans. His work seems to mirror the frenetic, nonlinear qualities of browsing through YouTube videos, or the way that multiple parallel realities can be juggled in the use of cellphones and instant messaging (albeit for very short attention spans).
“The images detached from every aspect of life merge into a common stream in which the unity of that life can no longer be recovered. Fragmented views of reality regroup themselves into a new unity as a separate pseudoworld that can only be looked at. The specialization of images of the world evolves into a world of autonomized images where even the deceivers are deceived. The spectacle is a concrete inversion of life, an autonomous movement of the nonliving.”
A similar approach was taken by Superamas, in their application of Derridean deconstruction to pop culture sources. In their performance, the unitary nature of performance was questioned through the peeling back of separate components. The voice was contained in a recording to remind us that yes, everything you are watching has been constructed, rehearsed and is constantly being re-constructed. You must always remember that these are actors on a stage, don’t get sucked into the spectacle. The narrative in this performance is continuously frustrated through repetition, rewinding and pausing live actors as if they were frames on a dvd. Superamas seemed interested in revealing hidden agendas contained within popular narrative, for example the manipulation of sexual desire and the stereotyping of sexual roles. Their use of nude, beautiful women exposes the banality of popular culture’s use of sex to sell itself. At the same time, it makes us complicit in that dynamic. By repeating scenes over and over, they invite analysis, taking apart each gesture of an essentially empty scene.
The problem with this approach is that performers are often forced to participate in the very thing they critique. Is Reggie Watts questioning or celebrating fragmented attention spans? Is it enough to simply point out that such fragmentation exists? Are Superamas supporting or condemning the male gaze? Are we iin a position of being titilated and chided at the same time? Does this approach bring us any closer to the actors as real people through denying our desire to be convinced by the image?
Many other performers at T:BA found an opposite solution to the problem of spectacle, working by stripping away the conventions of theater. Tim Etchells, in his lecture, talked about making theater which is either “too much” or “too little”, and his “Sight is the Sense…” performance is a good example of the latter. A single figure in street clothes on a blank stage speaking for an hour. It can’t get much “less” than this (although I suppose silence is always an option).
Vivarium Studios took an interesting middle ground in a performance which was incredibly understated, but which took place in a set that relied on trickery to create an “almost-believable” illusion of interior and exterior spaces. The character of Serge engaged directly these questions of performance through his brief “Effects” produced for small groups in an unfinished living room. These little shows had an ambiguous quality as they participated in theater tropes – synchronizing movement to music , a desire to create reactions in the audience. At the same time, they (unwittingly – at least within the narrative construction) rejected the pleasure of spectacle in their underwhelming materiality. I wondered if this performance was itself a comment on postmodern performance, showing the results of a completely non-virtuosic, democratic theater. In the end, Serge’s performances, although charming, are rather boring, and they don’t succeed in bringing him any closer to his audience. He still remains a “performer”, awkwardly separated from the friends he wants to impress. It’s as if, in his own living room, the fragmentation of the stage is still exerting its invisible influence. Serge’s lack of virtuosity tells us that we could all do this (make performances for each other). But are we really any more likely to do so after seeing this?
Tiago Guedes also found a middle ground in his “Diverse Materials” performance which again foregrounded a plain stage, street clothes and simple lighting. He used everyday materials such as newspaper, tape, fishing line, a lighter. Yet his movements were precise, aesthetic and virtuosic in an ordinary kind of way. I thought about repetitive jobs I’ve had, and the ways that my movements became more efficient over time. The virtuosity of simply being good at what you do, a kind of body knowledge gained through repetition. I felt that Tiago discovered a hesitant, haphazard magic through attention to ordinariness.
Of course, this schema I have proposed is overly simple. Ultimately, these two ways of responding to spectacle are paradoxical and intertwined, embedded as they are within the culture which has produced them. Even a performance which denies the conventions of performativity still participates in that dynamic of performer and audience. By naming it, we separate these actions from those of “ordinary life”, yet they have been born from and are part of that life. I am interested in the fact that performers are asking such questions over and over, coming to various temporary answers which raise yet more questions. As an audience, it seems important to participate in this questioning, to remember that “audiencing” is an activity, and to find our own answers, for the time being.