Several thoughts on active spectator


By Bojana Kunst. She is currently Visiting Professor at The University of Hamburg.

Bojana Kunst will be in mov-s/madrid in the Plenary Session on Friday 11th of June at 10:00h in Museo Reina Sofía


What is wrong with that this sensual and topographical image which comes to our mind when thinking about spectator, the image which is also under ‘critical’ consideration in this conference? The spectator is one who seats in the darkness, with her / his body adjusted to his / her chair, together with others seating and watching. She or he is the one who seems to be accused of passivity, of ‘merely’ watching, as the one who only receive without any feedback, the one who is not creative and imaginative, who is comfortable, on the border of sleeping, sometimes disinterested, many times bored. There is a strong desire to awaken the spectator, raise her or him out of the chair, out of the darkness and to the light, make her or him active, out of disengaged mode to the engaged one, to enable him that he can actively participate in the construction and meaning of performance with all his senses, not merely watching.


However this almost to perfect proportion between seating (on the surface silent and still) passivity and participatory activity (on the surface loud and moving) activity, proportion between two topographical and sensual propositions about the position of the spectator makes me deeply suspicious. I would agree on that place with Ranciere that this proportion is based on the wrong set of oppositions and equivalences, where looking is something which is opposed to knowing, passivity to activity, appearance to reality. »Why to identify the act of seating with passivity if not presupposing the radical gap between activity and inactivity? « If we activate the spectator, metaphorically speaking – if the spectator is raised from his/her chair – do we really radically change the ways how the capabilities are distributed, do we change the relationships between the ones who are capable to be active and the ones who are not? It seems that activation of the spectator has not so much to do with the liberation of other senses and condemnation of ‘merely’ watching,  but with an awareness that the dispositive of our artistic practice is grounded on equality of intelligences, on radical practice of potentiality. Instead of contempt or patronizing relation to the spectator, it is necessary to understand the spectator as subject of independent thought, memories, emotions and affections.


Therefore I would propose differentiation between active spectator and participatory spectator, or to put it differently: between activation of the practice of spectatorship and active participation of the spectator. What do I mean with that?

Nowadays it seems that activation lies in the possibility to awaken, emancipate somebody and give him responsibility for the meaning. However very rarely the position from which somebody is awakening the other (who is merely watching) is being stressed and analysed. The problem is not only in the fact that this position is very often a hierarchical position of the one who knows, who has the capacity in the relation to the other who doesn’t, but also that call for participation is very synchronous with the political and social reality in which we live. The participation of the spectator, her or his taking part in the relations and procedures of artistic work, is in a synchronous relation with problematic exhaustion of contemporary political procedures: don’t we live today in the world where the main threat is, as Žižek puts it,  ‘psevdoactivity’ not passivity? We are all the time participating, doing something, isn’t contemporary politics a kind of necessity that you have to be all the time active and participate? Isn’t active participation in this sense tuned with the neoliberal transformation of society, where we have to invest with all our bodies and desires, with participation we have to transform ourselves as viewers? The paradox is that in contemporary society forms of social solidarity are more and more under threat, destructed, but at the same time we are continuously participating and reproducing social relations in art, participation somehow becomes a skill in sociability, which as, Maja Breznik writes,  is gradually replacing society.

When taking the responsibility on ourselves, when participating (just seating is bad, you have to exercise), aren’t we then perfectly tuned with the appropriation of our activity and creativity as subjects from contemporary economy: doesn’t the ones who govern paradoxically rather see participation in then silence?


However there is something different at work when we talk about activation of the practice of spectatorship: this can be understood as practice of equality and independence, negotiation, observation, affective modulation, interpretation and misunderstanding, memorizing and forgetting, dealing with complexity of meaning and exhaustion of it, dealing with the constant negotiation between individual modulations and intellectual, discursive and affective negotiation of antagonistic togetherness. In that sense it is also very close to the modus of working in performance. That’s why collaboration becomes an important issue: not because it is another fashionable procedure but because it can really change the quality of our equal and independent relations and at the same time really influence the way how the performance is constructed. So active participation doesn’t necessarily mean empowerment. It can also disempower the subject, disconnect him or her from the sensorial complexity, embodied rhythms, manipulating the affective modulations and time he or she needs for thinking, observing, experiencing. Activity of spectatorship is namely always an antagonistic practice, sometimes with unease, difficulties and discomfort. So being active in the sense of empowerment, being a spectator as active individual means to constantly negotiate and practice ungraspable differences through which we exist together as equals.

Bojana Kunst was born in Maribor (13.03.69) and lives in Ljubljana (Slovenia). She is Assistant Professor of post graduate studies at The University of Primorska. She is currently Visiting Professor at The University of Hamburg. She received a PHD in 2002 at The University of Ljubljana with the research study entitled “Philosophy, Aesthetics and Art between the organic and the technological. Aesthetics of the body and art of the postmodern era. She was Guest Professor at The University of Giessen, Amsterdam and Hamburg and participated at MACAPD (L’animal a l’esquena – University of Gerona). She is member of the editorial board of the magazines Maska, Performance Research and Amfiteater.


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