The Cigar-Smoking Spectator: Applying a Brechtian approach to the visual arts
Hannah Harkes 2011
TABLE OF CONTENTS
I. To the Reader . . . . . . 1
II. Motives behind Participation and Audience Relations . 9
III. A Brief History of Participation and its Two Divergent Directions within the Visual Arts . . . . . 21
IV. Bertolt Brecht’s Theory of Epic Theatre . . . 35
V. Stalinist Didacticism and an Inversion of the Issue – A Critique of Bertolt Brecht . . . . . . 47
VI. Unwrapping the Cigar – A Contemporary Brechtian Analysis of Mike Chavez-Dawson, Lynne Harris and Sam Ely’s Unrealised Poten- tial. . . . . . . . 59
VII. Conclusion . . . . . . 71
Appendix I: Glossary of terms . . . . 77 Appendix II: Personal correspondence with Mike Chavez-Dawson 85
Bibliography . . . . . . 97
Image list . . . . . . 105
TO THE READER
“You are in Chicago in 1912. You are about to witness an inexpli- cable wrestling match between two men and observe the downfall of a family that has moved from the prairies to the jungle of the big city. Don’t worry your heads about the motives for the fight, concentrate on the stakes. Judge impartially the technique of the contenders, and keep your eyes fixed on the finish.”
– Prologue; In the Jungle of Cities – Bertolt Brecht1
In the prologue to the play In the Jungle of Cities by twentieth-century German playwright Bertolt Brecht, the spectator is told directly that he has been transported to Chi- cago, though thanks to the matter-of-fact manner with which he is being told rather than theatrically shown, he is forced to consciously contradict that statement, to remind himself of the theatre in which he sits, of the city and of the year. The spectator is then informed of the underlying design of the play which he is to witness. Most interestingly, it is sug- gested to him the way in which he should approach a criti- cal engagement with the subsequent production. Finally, Brecht reminds the spectator that there will be a finish; the story that is to unfold before him on stage is not a snap- shot of reality, rather a complete work of invention, com- posed with a beginning and an end. So it is, with an avoid- ance of illusion, a discouragement of emotion and a direct call for critical engagement that Brecht is known to address his audience and to tackle the controversies over the spec- tator’s position. Of course the relations Brecht builds with his audience through his particular techniques are of a very specific nature. This investigation attempts to identify that nature, the characteristics of which are easier to recognise
1 Brecht B. In the Jungle of Cities. In: Willet J, Manheim R, editors. Brecht Collected Plays: One. revised ed. Great Britain: Methuen Drama; 1994. p. 118.
than they are to define. Within theoretical writing, there is one particular illustration which crops up regularly in the description of Brecht’s approach, referred to by John Wil- let in a note drawing on Brecht’s Schriften zum Theater:
“Brecht was insisting on the need for what he called a ‘smokers’ theatre’, where the audience would puff away at its cigars as if watching a boxing match, and would develop a more detached and critical outlook.2”
Within theatre and the visual arts, the manner with which the spectator relates to a work is a common point of discussion. The concept of audience participation within the arts is highly problematic and even finding a term to best de- scribe the phenomenon can be complex. The broad scope of terminology relevant to the notion includes socially engaged art, relational aesthetics, conversational art, dialogue-based public art, dialogical art and participatory art, with each term referring to a slightly different approach to the relationships that can be created; between the viewer and the art work, the viewer and the artist, or the viewer and other viewers. Regardless of the term used to describe the resulting art work, each of these angles of approach deal with a shared, long-standing concern: the circumstance of the spectator.
Amongst the tangled discourse and the myr- iad of approaches made in the arts to address the barrier between the spectator and the spectacle,
2 Willet J, editor. Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic. revised ed. Great Britain; Eyre Methuen Ltd.; 1978. p. 8.
what exactly does Brecht’s ‘smokers’ theatre’ entail; how do the relations Brecht fosters with his audience work; how can the techniques used be applied to the visual arts; and in- deed why is there a need to return to a Brechtian approach, in such a culturally and politically different time and place?
Before embarking upon such an investigation, I hope that you too, dear reader, can comfortably light your cigar and find pleasure in judging impartially the conflicting stanc- es adopted within the arena of participatory arts. Within this investigation, standing in opposing corners are critics Claire Bishop and Grant Kester, who are joined by playwrights Bertolt Brecht, Antonin Artaud and Augusto Boal, curator Nicholas Bourriaud and a host of artists, philosophers, cura- tors, historians and theorists as they wrestle with the possi- bly paradoxical role of the spectator. It is vital that eyes are kept fixed on the finish, in order to avoid getting trampled in the gory debate, and to hope for some sort of a conclu- sion. However unlike Brecht’s audience, it is imperative that we do worry our heads about the motives for the fight. Be- fore scrutinising the various techniques used in tackling the spectator, a motive must be pinned down for further explora- tion of participatory art, as well as a reason for resurrecting Brecht and dragging him back in to the contemporary ring.
Once a motive has been identified, the various methodologies employed throughout art history, as well as those of leading contemporary figures within the visual arts can be inspected, before Brecht’s theatrical techniques are brought back into the arena. Through a sharp dislocation of these various methodologies, perhaps the skeleton of a fresh approach can be left standing. The current travelling ex- hibition Unrealised Potential, a collaborative work between artist/curator Mike Chavez-Dawson* and artists Lynne Harris and Sam Ely can provide an inter- esting punch bag, with which to test such a framework.
*(Personal correspondence with Chavez-Dawson has been ongoing throughout the process of this investigation.)
MOTIVES BEHIND PARTICIPATION AND AUDIENCE RELATIONS
Within the arts – theatrical, visual or otherwise – concerns over the spectator’s position have been raised and responded to in numerous ways. The motives behind these various responses can be categorised into three main areas of concern:
– the passivity of the individual spectator,
– the socio-political perspective, focusing on a collective passivity,
– the valuation of an art work, made by the spectator who belongs to a secular modern world.
These three standpoints can be recognised as mo- tives driving much of participatory art, as well as be- ing apparent in theatre practice, taking as examples Antonin Artaud, Bertolt Brecht, and Augusto Boal.
The Individual Spectator
Viewing the issue firstly from the individual specta- tor’s seat, French philosopher Jacques Ranciere3 claims that a feeling of discomfort with the spectator’s position can be reduced to a problematic paradox in the act of spectating. Ranciere critically explores the supposed paradox, alleged to be the contradiction inherent in the absolute necessity of the spectator/viewer in the existence of any play or art work, conflicting with the negative implications carried by the role, such as the connection between looking and passivity:
3 Ranciere J. The Emancipated Spectator. London: Verso; 2009.
“…being a spectator is a bad thing… viewing is the opposite of knowing… it is the opposite of acting: the spectator remains im- mobile in her seat, passive.4”
According to Ranciere5, belief in this complex prob- lem drives various attempts to remove passivity inherent in the role of the spectator. Even as far back as 5th century Athens, Plato deduced from the problem of the paradox that theatre was simply
“an absolutely bad thing… the place where ignoramuses are in- vited to see people suffering.6”
Plato7 concluded that the theatre should not have a place in the ideal community, as represented by his Republic.
However in practice, the more common response is to retain the theatre, but to transform it into a theatre without spectators; to liberate the spectator by changing the circum- stance of their position. In attempting to remove passivity, many further this notion by relating it to concerns of a socio- political nature, hoping that the spectator could draw upon the experience of actively relating to a work and apply this experience to their engagement with societal and political is- sues.
The Socio-Political Perspective
4 Ibid., p. 2. 5 Ibid. 6 Ibid. p.3 7 Ibid.
Those approaching the issue from this perspective
view the activation of the collective audience as a poten- tial vehicle for social and political change; their concern is over a fragmented audience, and their objective is to activate the passive spectators collectively. As referenced by Boris Groys8: in 1850, Richard Wagner produced the seminal essay, The Art-work of the Future, which heralded a need for uni- fication within the arts as well as an elimination of the ego- istical artist. The latter was to be replaced by a socially and politically driven collection of artists who would endeavor to unify the people9. Wagner’s ideology promoted work geared towards societal interests and needs, made through a collabo- rative effort that united artists spanning all genres. His call for “the passing over of Egoism into Communism10” is mirrored in many areas of participatory arts throughout history, as a communist alignment clearly conflicts with notions of the in- dividual and passive spectator remarked upon by Ranciere.
For Bertolt Brecht, living and writing during the first and second world wars, the passive position of the spectator within the theatre reflected a social and politi- cal powerlessness of the people11. The invisible fourth wall on the proscenium stage12 that separated the audi- ence from the activity paralleled the wall between the peo- ple and their social and political situation, rendering them unable to affect reality, bound to their seats and to the de- bilitating act of looking. Thus in order to rectify this
8 Groys B. A Genealogy of Participatory Art. In: Levine K, editor. The Art of Participation: 1950 to Now. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd.; 2008. 9 Ibid., p. 23 10 Ibid.
11Womack P. Brecht: Theatre for Marx. In: Frost A, editor. Theatre Theories: From Plato to Virtual Reality. Norwich: Pen & Inc. for EAS Publishing; 2000. 12 Proscenium stage – see glossary of terms
inability, over a number of years Brecht concocted his theory of Epic Theatre, a dramaturgy that employed an alienation effect13. This ‘alienation effect’ descends from the Russian formalist concept of “ostranenie”14 – making the familiar appear unfamiliar. Such an effect was directed towards the rational spectator, encouraging them to break through the fourth wall by means of a critical engage- ment. With this approach came the hope that such a proc- ess would carry through into the socio-political stratum.
Aside from Brecht, Ranciere15 draws attention to playwright Antonin Artaud, as being particularly signifi- cant in attempting to rectify the paradox of the spectator with socio-political aims. Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty fo- cuses on the problem of a non-unified audience. He appeals to the heightened emotions of the spectator and hopes that by stirring the audience into frenzied sensation, a collec- tive energy can be created within the theatre that can then be translated into the socio-political realm. This approach can be said to be of a more antagonistic nature than Brecht’s, as it depends upon an aggressive disruption of the specta- tor’s temperament and persuades a tangible response from the audience. Artaud’s approach appeals to the emotional- ity of the audience, rather than their rationality. Whilst Bre- cht’s spectator exchanged his position of passive observer for that of the scientific investigator or experimenter, Ar- taud’s spectator exchanged her position of rational observ- er for one in which she could be “in possession of all her vital
13 Alienation effect – see glossary of terms 14 Butler JG, editor. Star Texts: image and performance in film and television. Michigan: Wayne State University Press; 1991. p. 67.
15 Ranciere, op. cit. p. 4.
energies16”; by succumbing to the thrall of the thea- tre and allowing herself to be drawn into its cir- cle, she could contribute to a collective energy.
The Valuation of Art
The final category of concern relates to the process through which an art work is valued, and requires looking at the issue from the perspective of the art work and the art- ist. This perspective takes into consideration the nature of an art work’s status when placed in a situation involving a viewer. Author Boris Groys17 explains in his 2008 essay A Genealogy of Participatory Art the change in the valua- tion of art work that occurred when the production of pre- dominantly religious works was replaced by that of secular works. Whilst not being the only circumstance under which an art work is judged, the shift towards secularisation was to have momentous effect on the valuation of art. For ex- ample, the change in content notoriously caused Hegel18, in the 1820s, to declare the end of art. Within the secularised modern world there exist qualms over the reception of an art work by an uninvolved viewer who, unable to automati- cally assign value to an art work for its spiritual worth, is left heavily reliant upon financial factors and current trends to aid his judgment19. Groys20 suggests that artists can use partici- pation to combat the secular devaluation of their work. He explains how a political motivation apparent in participatory
16 Ibid. 17 Groys, op. cit. 18 Hegel GWF, The Conception of Artistic Beauty. In: Inwood M, editor. HEGEL Introduc- tory Lectures on Aesthetics. London: The Penguin Group; 1993. 19 Groys, op. cit. 20 Ibid.
work, combined with the community this creates, can function as replacements for religious worth and religious community:
“When the viewer is involved in artistic practice from the outset, every piece of criticism he utters is self-criticism. The decision on the part of the artist to relinquish his exclusive authorship would seem primarily to empower the viewer. This sacrifice ultimately benefits the artist, however, for it frees him from the power that the cold eye of the uninvolved viewer exerts over the resulting art- work.21”
This manipulation of the viewer’s participation, uti- lised in order to enhance a positive reception of the work, is something that participatory art projects can at times be accused of. Lee Mingwei’s Letter Writing Project, shown at the Dean Gallery in 2009 as part of the Fringe Festival, comes to mind.
The project “invites us to write the letters we’ve always meant to, but never taken time for22”, addressed to “deceased or otherwise absent loved ones23”. This exhibition poses two concerns. First- ly, in assessing the work, the viewer or critic must venture into the uneasy territory of commenting upon the highly deli- cate experience of making contact with an absent or deceased loved one. The emotional connotations of this distinct expe- rience can cloud judgment of the artist’s action. Secondly,
21 Ibid., p. 21. 22 Gary Hsu-Kun Lee. The Letter Writing Project. [homepage on the Internet]. New York City: Gary Hsu-Kun Lee; 2010 [cited 2010 Dec 3]. Available from: http://leemingwei.com/ mingwei-web/mingweiFrameset-1.htm 23 Ibid.
the work begs the question of whether or not a truly personal emancipating experience can take place in a situation where the viewer has been given the opportunity to do so under the direction of an artist. The artist, from his authoritarian posi- tion of emancipator, can be accused of placing the viewer in a junior position, in which through following orders, the viewer produces an object of apparent emancipation which can then be shown to the enhancement of the work’s recep- tion. This is also a concern that has been picked up upon within theatre, as outlined in theatre lecturer Peter Wom- ack’s24 critique of playwright Augusto Boal’s physically participatory theatre. Boal asks the audi- ence to literally join the activity on stage, an approach that Womack accuses of being colonising:
“Every spectator, you could say, is an actor somewhere else: it may be true, as Boal says, that he is ‘less than a man’ if he isn’t an actor anywhere; but to insist that he be an actor here and now is not to empower him, it is to colonise his potential for the greater power of the show.25”
Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed26 cites Brecht’s Epic Theatre as its departure point. However, the distance travelled from Brecht’s thinking is arguably sizeable, a point made clear by Peter Womack27. Boal’s theatre is said to be taken from the understandably misin- terpreted deduction that Brecht’s theories endorsed a thea- tre that did “not present plays so much as frameworks within which
24 Womack, op. cit. 25 Ibid., p. 155. 26 Boal A. Theatre of the Oppressed. revised ed. London: Pluto Press; 2000. 27 Womack, op.cit.
the audience plays28”. Boal builds upon the possibility for thea- tre to make clear to the spectator the potential for change, and to reveal alternative directions, as drawn from Brecht’s theories. This manifests in Boal’s theatre through his direc- tion of the audience on to the stage, as he asks them to liter- ally interact with the actors and change the course of the play. However, lacking in translation is the cunning nuance of au- thority balance apparent in Brecht’s work. By attempting to make the position of the spectator the same as that of the expert actor, the forced equalisation results in a patronising relationship: that of the colonising theatre and the audience exploited under the guise of empowerment.
We can see then, that the spectator’s position raises concerns over the individual spectator’s passivity as well as over the collective passivity of the people when faced with art made by the egoistical artist. There emerges a conflict between motives that are genuinely socio-political, and mo- tives that aim to resolve issues over the third concern: the mechanism of reception. Some works which can be accused of this third motive arguably colonise the viewer’s engage- ment for the sake of enhancing the work. It is in the crux of this conflict that the discourse around participatory art has in the past two decades become increasingly more heated. So indistinct is the line between politically and socially driven works of sincerity, and those founded by the artist as a means of manipulating the methods of valuation, that the high level of scrutiny which artists’ approaches to participation are put under is inevitable.
28 Ibid., p. 151.
Even with those works that clearly serve a genuine socio-political intention, the modes of realisation and the implications for the viewer are much contested points. This inspection demands of the contemporary artist a refined self- reflexivity, substantial critical awareness, highly sophisticat- ed levels of subtlety and attentiveness to the implications of their approach to participation. With this in mind, it seems worthwhile to attempt to unravel the occasionally contradic- tory and ambiguous theories of Bertolt Brecht, considering his influence on the visual arts, and his weight within the arena of theatre, an area in which the relationship between spectator and work is arguably at its most discernible.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF PARTICIPATION AND ITS TWO DIVERGENT DIRECTIONS WITHIN THE
A BRIEF HISTORY OF PARTICIPATION… 23
The various forms of direct interaction can, through- out art history, be loosely categorised into two divergent methods; one focusing on a positive activation of the viewer and counting as its aims constructive social change and the creation of friendly relations; the other antagonistic, deliber- ately creating hostile situations or relying upon an opposing reaction from the viewer in order to bring about change or stipulate thought. These contrasting techniques of interac- tion can be traced throughout the course of twentieth century art, and continue to exact their influence on contemporary practice. During recent debate, the divide can most distinctly be seen in the separate camps of critics Claire Bishop, with her preference for antagonistic approaches, and Grant Kes- ter, with his focus on dialogical art that encourages social togetherness. Whilst Brecht and Artaud could be understood as initial departure points for these two methods, the dualism existing in theatre and that existing in the visual arts are not to be seen as running parallel to one another. Indeed, it could be proposed that Artaud and Boal better represent these two contrasting poles, with Brecht occupying an exterior posi- tion. It is this exterior position that appears to subtly elude the downfalls of the two prominent contrasting techniques.
In an essay published by Claire Bishop29 in 2006, she recalls the Paris ‘Dada-Season’, a series of events that took place around 1920, offering them as antecedents to the con- tinuing practice of participatory art. Bishop recognises in the work of this time, two divergent objectives driving the desire for participation: on the one hand, ‘collaborative yet highly au- thored experiences’, such as the mock trial of Maurice Barres,
29 Bishop C. Introduction//Viewers as Producers. In Bishop C, editor. PARTICIPATION// Documents of Contemporary Art. London: Whitechapel; 2006.
staged by Dada artists and writers who bid the public join the jury; on the other hand, the “Soviet mass spectacles that sublated individualism into propagandistic displays of collectivity30”, such as The Storming of the Winter Palace: a reenactment of the Bol- shevik victory, directed by Nikolai Evreinov in St Petersburg. The antagonistic and highly authored approach taken by the Parisian Dada artists and writers of the 1920s can be seen to carry through to the Italian Futurists, the Viennese Actionists of the 1960s and ‘70s, and to culminate in the work of cur- rently practicing artists such as Santiego Sierra and Marina Abramovic. On the other hand, the second direction, advanc- ing from the reenactment of the Bolshevik victory, can be seen as a line of work with collectivity as its central aim. Such work tends to place the author on the backbench, in favour of a focus on collectivity and social relations. Grant Kester studies the topic of recent dialogical art practice in Conversation Pieces: Community + Communication in Mod- ern Art, (2004). In reference to the work of Lorraine Lee- son and Peter Dunn, who worked together for nearly twenty years on collaborative and community based projects under the name The Art of Change, Kester states:
“Their artistic identity is based in part on their capacity to listen, openly and actively and to organise scenarios that maximise the collective creative potential of a given constituency or site.31”
It is this notion of maximising collective poten- tial that follows through from The Storming of the Win- ter Palace, to the work made out with galleries and museums by The Art of Change, and within a gallery
30 Ibid., p. 10. 31 Kester GH. Community + Communication in Modern Art. California: University of Cali- fornia Press; 2004. p. 24.
context, in the exhibitions curated by Nicholas Bourriaud in the Palais de Tokyo, opened in 2002. Also clearly influenced by Evreinov’s mass spectacle, Jeremy Dellar’s Battle of Or- greave (2001) reenacted on a grand scale, the 1984 miners’ strike.
Viewed alongside the practice of participation in the visual arts, the divergent attitudes of contemporaries Bertolt Brecht and Antonin Artaud can be seen to have provided an acting force in the cultivation of this dichotomy within the visual arts. However, whilst Artaud’s influence has visibly travelled through the practice of antagonistic artwork; Bre- cht’s approach cannot be linked as closely to the positive, ac- tivating work focusing on collectivity. Although parts of Bre- cht’s theories can be seen permeating many of these artists’ approaches, the predominant work appears to exist instead in the same vein as Augosto Boal’s theatre. There is a distinct tendency towards an overly-friendly mode of interaction and a demand of the viewer’s activation, which is not apparent in Bertolt Brecht’s dry relations. The parallelism fails as Brecht is aligned in a position quite separate from these two manners of interacting; neither attempting to create friendly relations, nor aggressively provoking the viewer, rather occupying a dual position of cunning authority and respectful deference towards the spectator. It is in the handling of authority that the root of this difference exists; in the expression of exper- tise teemed with a respect for the viewer.
Bertolt Brecht 
Lee Mingwei, Letter Writing Project, 2009 
Participants in a Theatre of the Oppressed  workshop, presented by Augusto Boal in New York, 2008
The Storming of the Winter Palace, 1920 
Jeremy Deller, Battle of Orgreave, 2001 
Rikrit Tiravanija, Untitled (Still), 1992 
BERTOLT BRECHT’S THEORY OF EPIC THEATRE
Brecht’s theory of Epic Theatre is grown from a desire to expel empathy from the audience, and to encourage a consciously critical attitude, founded with a firm Marxist conviction. Upon reading Das Kapital, Brecht found himself able to identify the spectator for whom he had been writing his plays as Karl Marx, claiming in his theoretical writing, Schriften zum Theater, as cited by Willet, “this man Marx was the only spectator for my plays I’d ever come across.32” At this point he also notes that his plays are not necessarily Marxist in character33, rather he seemed to have found in Marx the char- acteristics he imagined in the ideal spectator of his plays. The significance of Brecht’s ideal spectator, sitting upon his vel- vet seat and smoking a cigar, is considered by Peter Womack in his 2008 essay, Brecht: Theatre for Marx:
“…the smoker is someone who is not being coerced; he is at ease… Brecht is here preserving the theatre’s traditional deference towards its patrons…The symbol of the cigar… is a way of ask- ing that the show be at the spectator’s disposal, and not the other way round: by not freeing the audience to act in any literal sense, ‘smoking theatre’ frees it to consider, which Brecht assumes is the proper precondition of action.34”
In attempting to relate the root of Brecht’s ap- proach to the visual arts, his cigar smoking spectator can be placed in a contemporary art gallery context. If the reader will excuse an amateur attempt at theatrics, this could be stripped down rather cynically to its bare bones, through a brief exercise in a juvenile, hyperbolic setting of the scene:
32 Willet, op. cit., p. 23-24. 33 Ibid. 34 Womack, op. cit., p. 154.
Scene One: The Cigar Smoking Spectator Visits the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein
The scene is the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein, centre for con- temporary art. The cigar-smoking spectator lights the long black cigar between his lips with a match. He climbs the steps to the gallery door and enters, trench coat wrapped tightly around him.
The activating artist glides towards the cigar smoking spec- tator and slithers a comforting arm around him, whispering into his ear the positive health implications that come from quitting smoking:
The activating artist slips a friendly flyer for a support group into the cigar-smoking spectator’s pocket and begins scanning the gallery for fellow smokers in need of positive discouragement.
The antagonistic artist marches towards the cigar-smoking spectator, pulls the cigar from his lips and snuffs it on the ground.
Antagonistic Artist: ….WELL?
It is certain that, given the country’s smoking laws, the gallery attendant would simply refuse our cigar-smoking spectator entry. However, perhaps through taking a Brechtian approach to the visual arts; the spectator could interact with art works in the manner of smoking i.e. with both feelings of ease and authority, and a critical engagement. The cigar- smoking spectator demands a highly sophisticated mode of interaction, if his interest is to be kept. Brecht explains:
“…the spectator adopts an attitude of smoking-and-watching. Such an attitude on his part at once compels a better and clearer performance as it is hopeless to try to ‘carry away’ any man who is smoking and accordingly pretty well occupied with himself.35”
Brecht’s Epic Theatre and his theo- ry of the alienation effect36, as collated by John Willet37, are tactics which developed over many years of
35 Brecht B. Schriften zum Theater. In: Willet J, editor. Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic. revised ed. Great Britain; Eyre Methuen Ltd.; 1978. p. 8 36 Alienation effect – see glossary of terms 37 Willet J, editor. Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic. revised ed. Great Britain; Eyre Methuen Ltd.; 1978
re-working38, with the beginnings visible in his theoretical writing and notes as early as 1918. The core principles are retrospectively laid out by Brecht39 in his Short Description of a New Technique of Acting Which Produces an Alienation Effect, written in 1940. In this illuminating essay, the play- wright describes the alienation effect40, an effect central to an Epic Theatre, and pinpoints the techniques used in producing such a condition.
Reapplying Brechtian techniques to the visual arts, the playwright’s principles can be seen to contrast strongly with a large section of participatory art. Taking Brecht’s first condition for the A-effect – the call to remove any illusion of watching an ordinary event – we can view projects such as Les Levine’s Canadian-Kosher Restaurant (1969) in New York as starkly contrasting with his approach. Levine’s restaurant functioned with the illusion that it was an everyday restau- rant; its true nature as art work becoming apparent only when viewed in documentary form in the gallery41. While the view- er or restaurant customer participated in the work by dining there, they were unaware of their participation. They were met with the illusion and all of the regular sensations that come with the event of dining in an ordinary restaurant. Brecht, in contrast, went to great pains to remind the audience that what
38 Willet J. Introduction. In: Willet J, editor. Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic. revised ed. Great Britain; Eyre Methuen Ltd.; 1978. 39 Brecht B. Short Description of a New Technique of Acting which Produces an Alienation Effect. In: Willet J, editor. Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic. revised ed. Great Britain; Eyre Methuen Ltd.; 1978.
40 Alienation effect – see glossary of terms 41 Atkins R. Politics, Participation , and Meaning in the Age of Mass Media. In: Levine K, editor. The Art of Participation: 1950 to Now. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd.; 2008.
they were viewing was theatre, rather than reality. This is made particularly clear in the prologue to In the Jungle of Cities, referred to in the first chapter.
Brecht furthers this first condition by explaining that the alienation effect involves showing with a ‘gest’ of show- ing42. With this in mind, it is worth comparing the work of Rikrit Tiravanija to Levine’s Canadian-Kosher Restaurant. Tiravanija became famous with his Untitled (Still) (1992) at the 303 gallery in New York, wherein the artist moved eve- rything, and everyone he found working, in the gallery office and storeroom out into the main gallery space. He proceeded to transform the storeroom into a kitchen of sorts, in which the visitor could eat curries cooked by the artist. Both works centred on the viewer’s experience of socialising over food, in what would regularly be ordinary circumstances but had been dislocated through their context as art work. Where Tiravanija’s work differs is in the explicitness of its func- tion as art work. Unlike Levine’s project, Tiravanija staged his communal meal in a gallery, demanding an awareness of the project’s nature as art. This could be seen as fulfill- ing Brecht’s notion of showing with a ‘gest’ of showing43 as Tiravanija exhibited the event in the normal manner of exhibition. However, the approach of Tiravanija’s work dif- fers from that of Brecht’s in the artist’s control over the crea- tion of a friendly environment. Whilst distinguishable from a genuinely ordinary event, the work still purposely reflects the friendly atmosphere attached to social, communal events, akin to a friend’s dinner party.
42 Showing with a ‘gest’ of showing – see glossary of terms 43 Showing with a ‘gest’ of showing – see glossary of terms
A further aspect of Brecht’s A-effect is the exposure of the mechanics of production44. Within the visual arts, this Brechtian principle is particularly interesting when looked at in conjunction with the artists featured in Pop Life, an exhibi- tion held at the Tate Modern over 2009-201045. The exhibi- tion focused on the work of Andy Warhol and subsequent artists influenced by his practice, such as Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami, Richard Prince, Martin Kippenberger and Dami- en Hirst. With their transparently pragmatic methods of pro- duction, Warhol and his successors made visible the reality of art production within a world governed by the commodity.
Moving on to the next procedure in the Brechtian approach; the technical term for which is fixing the “not… but”46’47. There is a high level of ambiguity surrounding this particular procedure, as it becomes hard to distinguish the difference between a work that implies alternative possibili- ties, and one which is simply unfinished. This point of con- tention can be blamed for Boal’s alleged misinterpretation of Brecht’s theories. The ambiguity enters too, into the visual arts, in the search for a successful method of realising the notion of an open ended work. In revealing the point of dis- pute in recent terms, Claire Bishop refers to the “laboratory” paradigm, promoted by a host of contemporary curators,
44 Exposing the mechanics of production – see glossary of terms 45 Tate. Pop Life: Art in a material world – Exhibition room guide. London. Tate Modern; 2009 [cited 2010 Dec 4]. Available from: http://www.tate.org.uk/modern/exhibitions/pop- life/room-guide.shtm 46 Fixing the “not…but” – see glossary of terms 47 Brecht B. Short Description of a New Technique of Acting which Produces an Alienation Effect. In: Willet J, editor. Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic. revised ed. Great Britain; Eyre Methuen Ltd.; 1978. p. 137.
including Nicholas Bourriaud48. She sug- gests the work surrounding their thinking as also being derived from a misinterpretation; “…a creative misreading of poststructuralist theory: rather than
the interpretations of a work of art being open to continual assess- ment, the work of art itself, is argued to be in perpetual flux49”.
With these procedures in place, perhaps the area that most distinguishes Brecht’s Epic Theatre is his balance of authority. Alongside his various techniques for creating the alienation effect, a Brechtian approach must position itself in deference to the viewer, whilst simultaneously revealing a high level of expertise. The rehearsal period for Brecht’s plays often lasted many months, and involved rigorous im- plementation of sophisticated rehearsal procedures. Womack explains:
“The aim was always an acting style distinguished by lightness, mobility and athleticism – but it was the lightness of a juggler or dancer, that is, the kind of fluency that comes at the end of a long course of mechanical repetition50”.
This carefully constructed appearance of effortlessness al- lows the theatre to claim a temporary authority51, for whilst keeping the traditional aim of theatre and art, to entertain the viewer, as central; the obviously high level of expertise shown by the performers balances an authority with this def- erence. It is precisely this balance that lies at the heart of the
48 Bishop C. Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics. OCTOBER. Fall 2004; no. 110. 49 Ibid. 50 Womack, op.cit., p. 152. 51 Ibid., p. 156.
Brechtian approach. It is through skilfully controlling this au- thoritative equilibrium that the visual arts might too succeed in producing work which is neither patronising nor overly- aggressive, which encourages the viewer to approach it with a critical consciousness, cigar in hand.
STALINIST DIDACTICISM AND AN INVERSION OF THE ISSUE: A CRITIQUE OF BERTOLT BRECHT
One main criticism of Brecht is of the strong political ideologies behind his theory and the implications of using such as a starting point. As a Marxist, Brecht’s Epic Theatre was created with the intention of forcing a critical response from the audience, to social and political conditions, idealis- tically resulting in a revolt for political change. French phi- losopher Alain Badiou52 recognises Brecht’s approach as didactic53, and claims it is so to the extent of Stalinism. Brecht apparently refutes any notion of art’s capability of contain- ing truth, using it instead as a catalyst to illustrate a political ‘truth’. Whilst Groys has accused artists of using the political elements of participation as a tool to improve the reception of their art work; Brecht can be accused of using art itself as a tool to improve the reception of a political ideology. It is at this stage that we enter the realm of such elusive questions as ‘What is the purpose of art?’ – An enigma too obscure to approach in one chapter. It is however important to take from Badiou’s criticism the doubt over Brecht’s allegiance to art, and the suggestion that a Brechtian approach could be too politically weighted to subsist as art in its true nature.
Looking too at the didacticism in Brecht’s approach, Ranciere connects the attempt to break through the fourth wall separating stage and audience with the process of educa- tion, and the bridging of knowledge between pupil and teach- er. He suggests a major flaw with a pedagogical theatre, such as Brecht’s, with its attempt to transfer socio-political aware- ness. Likening this transference of knowledge in theatre with that in the classroom: Ranciere explains the problem to be that the schoolmaster conventionally asks the pupil to learn
52 Badiou A. Toscano A. Handbook of Inaesthetics. California: Stanford University Press; 2005. 53 Didactic- see glossary of terms
precisely the knowledge which he teaches to her. However, this is an impossibility – the pupil cannot learn his knowl- edge, rather can learn, through his mastery, how to fur- ther her own knowledge on the foundations of her existing knowledge. Relating this back to the theatre’s desire to break through the fourth wall, Ranciere argues that emancipation requires that a distance remains. Any claim to an opposition between activity and passivity, spectating and knowing, is based upon a presupposition of inequality between the two positions. According to Ranciere, the key to emancipation lies in the dissolution of such presuppositions. He requests an acknowledgement of the fact that spectating can be active, as it requires the spectator to translate what she is shown into her own personal interpretation. It is the individualism of this interpretation that must be recognised. Ranciere proclaims that artists “always presuppose an identity between cause and effect54”. However, it is impossible for the schoolmaster or artist to transmit their message directly to the pupil or spectator. If, as Ranciere suggests, Brecht believes that the spectator will learn from the theatre the thing that the theatre wishes them to learn about criticality: that they will become critical in the style Brecht intends for them to become critical, specifi- cally Marxism; then he must realise that in fact through the distancing process of interpretation, it could be an entirely different criticality that manifests itself within the spectator. This calls for an acceptance that it is enough to encourage the spectator to be critical through the act of spectating, for it is impossible to convey to the spectator the specific mode of criticality envisaged by the theatre or the artist. The viewer may well be smoking a cigar, but there can be no control over the brand of cigar that they are smoking.
54 Ranciere, op. cit., p. 14
In attempting to apply a Brechtian approach to con- temporary art practice, it could be said that, in a society ex- isting after the collapse of communism, it is questionable whether Brecht’s approach, so heavily affected by Marxist thinking, could still be relevant today. Indeed, Claire Bish- op55, whilst acknowledging Brecht’s importance in the histo- ry of audience participation, suggests that his approach could appear “tame”, when compared to contemporary art practice.
However, at this point it is worth simply rewording the question of his relevance. To contemporary philosopher Slavoj Žižek56, the question of whether Marxism can still be relevant today is simply a “stupid” one. He asks that the question is inverted – rather than using today to judge the relevance of Marx’s epoch, we should use Marx to interpret or judge today57. With this in mind we can see that Brecht’s approach, as judged from today’s perspective, may well ap- pear tame, and understandably so. How then in answering this criticism can Brecht’s approach be reinvented for the present-day, in order that it can be used to interpret and ana- lyse contemporary art practice?
55 Bishop C. Introduction//Viewers as Producers. In Bishop C, editor. PARTICIPATION// Documents of Contemporary Art. London: Whitechapel; 2006. 56 adycousins. Slavoj Žižek – What does it mean to be a revolutionary today? Marxism 2009. . London. You Tube; 2009 [cited 2011 Jan 9]. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=_GD69Cc20rw Time: 1min 20seconds
57 adycousins. Slavoj Žižek – What does it mean to be a revolutionary today? Marxism 2009. . London. You Tube; 2009 [cited 2011 Jan 9]. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=_GD69Cc20rw Time: 1min 35seconds
Unrealised Potential, 2010, gallery view
Mike Chavez-Dawson, Lynne Harris,  Sam Ely, Unrealised Potential, 2010, gallery view detailing documentation of the signing of the contract
Brian Reed and Len Horsey,  Planta de Anadizado, 2010
Brian Reed and Len Horsey,  Planta de Anadizado, 2010
UNWRAPPING THE CIGAR: A CONTEMPORARY BRECHTIAN ANALYSIS OF MIKE CHAVEZ-DAWSON, LYNNE HARRIS AND SAM ELY’S UNREALISED POTENTIAL
One currently exhibited art work which appears to be addressing the role of the spectator from a contemporary Brechtian standpoint is Unrealised Potential, a project de- veloped by artist-curator Mike Chavez-Dawson and artists Sam Ely and Lynne Harris. The project is currently touring Britain, having shown initially at Cornerhouse in Manches- ter, before relocating to Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art in Sunderland. The work is a culmination of Harris’ and Ely’s project entitled Unrealised Projects – a collection of as- yet-unrealised proposals gathered by the artists from a range of other contemporary artists – and Mike Chavez-Dawson’s Potential Hits, 2005, in which he sold unrealised proposals to the public for production. The resulting collaboration is exhibited in the gallery space as a series of proposals avail- able for purchase at the price of £50. The purchaser is con- tractually given the right to take that particular idea and use it to produce a corresponding art work. A timeframe of two years is given to the purchaser to produce the work, before the wavered copyright is reinstated.
Chavez-Dawson58 cites Brecht’s Epic Theatre as having had a major influence on him, particularly for the way in which it develops “an awareness of constant shifting/flux of modes authorship/validation59”. Unrealised Potential shares many similarities to Brecht’s work both practically, in terms of the techniques of interaction employed, and ideologically.
Looking firstly at the surface, we can see a similarity to the Brechtian approach aesthetical- ly, through the pragmatic style in which the artists
58 Mike Chavez-Dawson, emailed personal communication 2010 Oct 25. 59 Ibid
have chosen to exhibit the work. Returning to Brecht’s first condition of the alienation effect, namely the purging of em- pathy through showing with a ‘gest’ of showing60, Unreal- ised Potential can be seen to employ a very similar tactic. The as-yet-unrealised proposals are exhibited for purchase in an environment not dissimilar to a contemporary library61. This makes it clear that the elements contained within the show are made available as information, presented to be browsed through and accessed. During ongoing personal correspond- ence with Chavez-Dawson, he described the nature of his ap- proach to interaction as intending to be “enticingly clear, whilst allowing space for consideration”62. The importance placed here upon consideration is fitting for a Brechtian approach, as it appeals to rationality rather than emotionality.
Accompanying the exhibition, wall mounted vinyl text bears information on the process behind the exhibition. Also mounted within the gallery space, alongside the “transparently collaborative63” work is a contract signed by Chavez-Dawson, Harris and Ely, as well as photographic evidence of the artists signing the contract. This contract formalises all conditions of the collaboration, detailing a lengthy list of clauses as guard- ed by British Law and witnessed by an impartial party, thus reflecting a further technique laid out by Brecht: exposing the
60 Showing with a ‘gest’ of showing – see glossary of terms 61 Gledhill D. Not for Profit: Economics and Contemporary Art. In: Cornerhouse, producer, Chavez-Dawson M, curator. Unrealised Potential Newspaper. United Kingdom: Corner- house and Mike Chavez-Dawson; 2010. p. 16 62 Mike Chavez-Dawson, emailed personal communication 2010 Dec 2. 63 Mike Chavez-Dawson, emailed personal communication 2010 Dec 1.
mechanics of production64. By making clear the mechanics and formalities behind the whole complicated collaborative process partaken by the three participants thus removing illu- sion, any romantic notions of the naively unrestrained artist applying for empathetic viewers are immediately purged.
A further aspect of Brecht’s alienation effect is fixing the “not…but”65: a characteristic clearly central to the project. This technique can be interpreted as implying the many var- ied routes possible, and showing that occurrences can lead on to a number of different eventualities. There seems no clearer way of applying this to the visual arts than to present artists’ proposals with the declaration that they may be realised by anyone in any mode of their choosing. Here it is important to bear in mind the ambiguity surrounding the open-ended art work in contemporary visual arts, as brought to attention by Claire Bishop66 in her essay Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics. As previously mentioned, Bishop highlights the tendency to confuse work which implies the potential for change and work which is simply incomplete. With Unre- alised Potential, the work credited to Chavez-Dawson, Har- ris and Ely must be seen as the compilation, presentation, and sale of other artists’ proposals. Though the proposals for sale have not yet been completed, the project itself, within which the proposals play a part, is exhibited with an almost showroom-like professionalism, finely tuned through artistic and curatorial expertise to a satisfactory finish.
65 Exposing the mechanics of production – see glossary of terms 66 Fixing the “not…but” – see glossary of terms 67 Bishop C. Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics. OCTOBER. Fall 2004; no. 110.
It is not just a technical influence that Brecht appears to have had on Unrealised Potential, but an ideological influ- ence, too. We can see that the aesthetic style in which Unre- alised Potential has been executed can be likened to that of Brecht’s alienating theatre, thanks to the various techniques of presentation shared by both works. However, in order to investigate the significance of reinventing Brecht’s theories for contemporary visual art, given the hugely different his- torical and geographical contexts, we must examine the ide- ology. The notion foremost in Unrealised Potential, that the artist’s ideas can be bought and sold, appears to be embedded deeply in the capitalist society in which the art work exists. However if we look more closely at the modes of authorship that Chavez-Dawson claims to have drawn from Brechtian thinking, the hierarchical structural set-up of the work fol- lows a similar system to that of the Marxist revolutionary framework. Considering Brecht’s affiliation with Marxism, this is an area worth exploring. However, in a post-marxist society, Marxist revolutionary ideals are understandably seen by many as utopian and unrealistic. Chavez-Dawson ac- knowledges the socio-political objectives of the work to be merely in a state of potential; the ideal not necessarily achiev- able. When asked what the social implications of Unrealised Potential might be, the artist said he felt that “socially it presents a model of potential non-hierarchical collaboration.67” The potential in this statement, when interpreted through a communist ep- och, is what explains the particular authoritative equilibrium found in the art work, links it to a Brechtian approach, and separates it from more friendly and also more antagonistic modes of participation.
67 Mike Chavez-Dawson, emailed personal communication 2010 Dec 2.
When we relate the power balance in Unrealised Po- tential to that found in the Marxist ideology, it seems both strive towards a non-hierarchical existence, which is howev- er achieved pragmatically through a framework based upon an initially hierarchical structure. Setting out a framework for revolution, Marx proposed a system in which the educated vanguard could lead the mass proletariat into revolution. He expressed a need for this distinct, commanding group in the beginnings of the revolution, with the intention that this dis- tinction could then be blurred soon after an initial deconstruc- tion of the prevailing class structure. Of course in practice, it is in the failure of the vanguard to relinquish this higher power that has lead to the idea of communism as idealistic, or even in extremes, totalitarian.
Let us hypothesise that the social objective driving Unrealised Potential, of a non-hierarchical collaboration between artist and viewer, could lead us to take Chavez- Dawson and collaborating artists as representing an artistic vanguard, with the art viewing public representing the ar- tistic proletariat. If non-hierarchical collaboration is to be achieved, under Marxist thinking, the artists’ expertise must initially be recognised as necessary in guiding the viewers towards emancipation, just as Ranciere insists upon a dis- tancing between the teacher’s mastery and the pupil’s posi- tion as learner. With this mock Marxist framework in mind, it is interesting that the first proposal to be bought and real- ised within the exhibition was produced by two practicing artists, already experienced in the art world. Liam Gillick’s Planta De Anadizado was purchased and produced by art- ists Brian Reed and Len Horsey, and throughout the process of production there continued correspondence between Reed and Horsey, Chavez-Dawson and Liam Gillick himself68. Writer and film curator Omar Kholeif writes in Frieze maga- zine that by choosing practicing artists to produce the first ex- hibited realisation, “Chavez-Dawson is encouraging a political im- perative – one that informs visitors that the greatest of all producers, are practicing artists themselves.69” This balance between deference and a demand for an acknowledgement of expertise is pre- cisely where the Brechtian ideology of participation seems to ring through Unrealised Potential. The exhibition reminds the viewer, frankly and directly, that there is always potential for change; that there are simultaneously a number of dif- fering routes that can be taken, with a little initiative. At the same time, the leaning towards collaboration kept within the artists’ community “offers audiences an insight into the graft and ex- pertise required to produce a successful creative project70”. It acknowl- edges the need for a distinction between artist and viewer, reflecting the distance Ranciere claimed was necessary in his criticism of theatre’s attempts at emancipating the spectator.
Of course any suggestion that Unrealised Poten- tial follows Brecht in adopting a Marxist ideology could be quickly met by a reminder that the project centers on the sale of ideas; that it surrenders obediently to a con- sumer-led capitalist society. On the other hand, it could be argued that it is precisely in this point that the Brechtian approach has been reinvented within this project for the cur- rent day. For an art viewing public shaped by the idea that purchasing a product or service allows them to take own- ership of that which they have purchased, it is through
68 Mike Chavez-Dawson, emailed personal communication 2010 Dec 2. 69 Omar Kholeif. Frieze Magazine | Shows | Unrealised Potential. London. Frieze; 2010 [cited 2010 Nov 21]. Available from: http://www.frieze.com/shows/review/unrealised_po- tential/ 70 Ibid.
this possession that the viewer takes the position of boss. If the proposals were to be given for free to the viewer, the project would run the risk of appearing charitable, and in this sense, overly friendly or patronising. With no rights of own- ership, the viewer would no longer hold the power neces- sary for their engagement. Similar to Lee Mingwei’s Letter Writing Project, the kindly emancipating artist, in his charity, could be accused of colonising the potential of the powerless viewer. Perhaps in today’s society, we can recognise value only when there is monetary value attached. This seems a contradictory point in a work which appears to ask the viewer to reassess the value of the artist’s position of expertise and to rethink the value of the idea in relation to the tangible art work. However, does this contradiction not mirror the way in which Brecht, in his desire to encourage criticality towards class divides, required that the spectator must be smoking a cigar: a symbol of the middle-upper classes, of disposable wealth, and of all that a Marxist would be expected to ques- tion? Similar then to Brecht’s cigar, the £50 price tag attached to participation in Unrealised Potential, could be seen either as a compliance with capitalist society, or as a cunning way to give value to the viewers’ position, utilising the dominance of money in current day valuation and power relations, just as Brecht utilised the symbolic value of the cigar in his time.
There is a further aspect to the work which also places the viewer in a position of authority, and that is the time limit on the contract. The purchaser is given two years in which to realise the idea they have bought, before copyright is reinstated to the artist. This answers the issue in theatre theory that Peter Womack had with the work of Augusto Boal, over his insist- ence that the spectator became actor in the here and now. The more Brechtian approach of Unrealised Potential allows the
purchaser time to consider, and asks them to become active out with the gallery space, in their own reality. At the same time, the timeframe does place a restraint upon the contract which, whilst allowing the purchaser space for consideration, also emphasises the importance of action. If there was no time limit then time would not be present at all, would not add val- ue and with it, the need for quick action. As it stands, there is an urgency attached to the completion of an idea’s realisation.
The purchaser of a contract then, becomes a compli- ant consumer in an exchange dominated by capitalism, by accepting that in today’s socio-political circumstance even an artist’s incomplete idea has a price. However, by know- ing that they must invest their time and money in the project, the potential purchasers’ capitalist upbringing forces them to attach value and power to the position which that ownership would bring, allowing them to browse through the collection of contracts and consider participation with an air of authority.
The twentieth century plays of Bertolt Brecht and the currently travelling visual art work Unrealised Potential may seem an unlikely comparison, given not only the differences in their genres, but also in their historical and geographical placement and in their socio-political contexts. However when both works are examined, there appears a similarity in techniques employed, resulting in a shared aesthetic style. Most importantly, a similar authoritative equilibrium is ap- parent in both, with an acknowledgment of the expert’s mas- tery coupled with a placing of the viewer in the position of boss. This complex hierarchical structure, mirroring the pre- liminary Marxist revolutionary framework, does not directly result in equality between art work and viewer, nor does it immediately remove the passivity of the spectator. It also cannot be said that the works of either are certain to instill a critical consciousness in the viewer, be it towards the class inequality of Brecht’s time, or towards the detachment felt by much of the art viewing public today, when faced with contemporary art. Both the work of Bertolt Brecht and that of Chavez-Dawson, Ely and Harris may reasonably be ac- cused of idealism if they claim they can succeed in either of these aims. However, with a disregard of unhelpful cyni- cism, in the words of Mike Chavez-Dawson, “There’s certainly a lot of potential.71”
71 Mike Chavez-Dawson, emailed personal communication 2010 Dec 1.
In the current field of participatory art, overwrought with conflicting opinion, the manner in which an artist facili- tates interaction is a problematic point for consideration. The differing motives driving such work each carry with them idealistic objectives, whether they be founded upon concerns over the passivity of the individual spectator or socio-polit- ical concerns relating to collective passivity. On top of this, work addressing these issues can easily be accused of ulterior motives, of constructing a sense of political or social collec- tivity in order to enhance the works’ value in the eyes of the secularised viewer. The theatre spectator and the art viewer continue to demand a very particular mode of interaction. An approach too aggressive can result in disengagement, just as an overly friendly approach can leave the viewer equally unwilling to participate. Within theatre theory and practice, Bertolt Brecht refuses to rely upon an empathic appeal to ex- treme emotions, as practiced by Antonin Artaud, whilst also refusing to adopt Augusto Boal’s role of charitable coloniser. Considering the messy discourse surrounding participation in contemporary visual arts, perhaps reapplying the subtlety of Brecht’s approach can provide a refreshing line of attack. Of course it would be foolish to forget the changes in social and political context since Brecht’s time. It is also impor- tant to bear in mind the criticisms posed towards Brecht’s theories, notably by Alain Badiou and Jacques Ranciere. It is reasonable to question whether Brecht is simply too tame for today’s audience, as believed by Claire Bishop. We can alternatively follow Slavoj Žižek’s lead and reverse the com- mon line of judgment, looking instead from a Brechtian per- spective, in order to interpret or judge the work of today. In doing this we find a multitude of art works which, whether because of their heightened aggression or because of their colonising charity, would require some taming if they are to appeal to the critically conscious, cigar-smoking spectator. However the currently touring Unrealised Potential, by Mike Chavez-Dawson, Sam Ely and Lynne Harris, seems to en- dure a Brechtian assessment of its technical procedures and ideologies. Though today’s cigar-smoking spectator has been somewhat transformed, by a growing capitalist society and, disillusioned by the fall of communism, responds cynically to revolutionary ideals; it seems he still desires a mode of interaction with the subtlety of Brecht’s approach. Upon dis- covering such a work in the visual arts, the cigar-smoking spectator will encourage the artist to flaunt superior levels of expertise and he will engage with the work’s Marxist hi- erarchical structure, provided the art, in its deferent position, adapts to his capitalist epoch and names him a price. It is yet to be seen whether the emancipated spectator might ever suc- cessfully overcome the initial hierarchical structure support- ing participatory art in order to share power and understand- ing with the artistic vanguard.
Brecht72 describes his technique of the alienation ef- fect as non-aristotelian, as the resulting theatre is not based on empathy. Outlining the particulars of such an effect, Brecht states:
The Alienation Effect
“The efforts in question were directed to playing in such a way that the audience was hindered from simply identifying itself with the characters of the play. Acceptances or rejections of their actions and utterances was meant to take place on a conscious plane, instead of, as hitherto, in the audience’s subconscious.73”
Such an effect can be produced through combining a series of techniques: the purging of empathy and hypnotic tensions; showing with a gest of showing; revealing the mechanics be- hind the production; implying the possibility of change; and combining deference with a clear demonstration of expertise. The first condition of the alienation effect, as put forward by Brecht is the purging of empathy, emotion, and tension:
“The audience was not worked up by a display of temperament or ‘swept away’ by acting with tautened muscles, in short, no attempt was made to put it in a trance and give it the illusion of watching an ordinary event. 74”
72 Brecht B. Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting. In: Willet J, editor. Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic. revised ed. Great Britain; Eyre Methuen Ltd.; 1978 73 Brecht B. Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting. In: Willet J, editor. Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic. revised ed. Great Britain; Eyre Methuen Ltd.; 1978 p. 91. 74 Brecht B. Short Description of a New Technique of Acting which Produces an Alienation Effect. In: Willet J, editor. Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic. revised ed. Great Britain; Eyre Methuen Ltd.; 1978. p. 136.
In Handbook of Inaesthetics, French philosopher Alain Badiou75 describes that the link between art and phi- losophy is thought in accordance with two opposing sche- mata – the romantic schema and the didactic schema. Whilst the romantic thesis is that art alone is capable of truth, the didactic thesis is that “art is incapable of truth, or that all truth is external to art76”. In the didactic schema, “the norm of art must be education77”. Badiou78 explains that Brecht used theatre as an instrument of education, with which to manufacture his ideal society.
An important aspect in the removal of illusion from the work is through a calculated exposure of the lighting and backstage mechanics of the production. By making the sources of light visible, the audience is made aware that “ar- rangements have been made to show something79”. Brecht points out that “No one would expect the lighting to be hidden at a sporting event, a boxing match for instance.80”
This technique centres on a deliberate implication of the possibility for change. The procedure requires the actor to suggest various possible
Didactic (as understood by Alain Badiou)
Exposing the Mechanics of Production
Fixing the “not…but”
75 Badiou A, Handbook of Inaesthetics. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press; 2005. p. 2 76 Ibid. 77 Ibid., p. 3.
78 Ibid., p. 6. 79 Brecht B. Short Description of a New Technique of Acting which Produces an Alienation Effect. In: Willet J, editor. Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic. revised ed. Great Britain; Eyre Methuen Ltd.; 1978., p. 141 80 Ibid.
eventualities and to “at all essential points discover, specify, imply what he is not doing81” . Brecht aimed through rigorous rehearsal to perform work that, rather than having the appearance of being unfinished, shows the actor performing in such a way that “whatever he doesn’t do must be contained and conserved in what he does.82” Herein lies the difference between a well rehearsed work in which the alternative possibilities are deliberately implied, and an unfinished work, still perceptible to being altered externally towards alternative eventualities.
A proscenium theatre is one in which an arch struc- ture is present at or near the front of the stage (this structure is referred to as the proscenium arch). The audience faces the stage directly, with the arch providing a frame through which the audience can view the performance. When no formal arch is present at the front of the stage, a theatre set-up tends to be referred to as proscenium provided the audience is positioned only to the front of the stage, directly facing the performance, with no audience member positioned to any other side of the stage.
This technique can be used to purge empathy by ac- knowledging the circumstance of the theatre: the actor is showing a contrived play to a theatre audience. Directly ad- dressing the audience is a way of making this situation trans- parent, however it is fundamental to Brecht’s production of the alienation effect that this be achieved through breaking
81 Ibid., p. 137. 82 Ibid.
Showing with a ‘gest’ of showing
from the common tradition of making contact with the audi- ence on the basis of empathy.
PERSONAL CORRESPONDENCE WITH MIKE CHAVEZ-DAWSON
Personal correspondence with Mike Chavez-Dawson has been ongoing throughout the writing of this investiga- tion, via the online social networking website Facebook, and email. The communication has been condensed to include only the more relevant discourse.
Hello Mike Chavez-Dawson,
October 16, 2010
I was wondering if you would be interested in sharing a few of your thoughts on audience participation with me. I am an artist current- ly studying in my final year at Gray’s School of Art, and am begin- ning to look at what Bertolt Brecht has to offer to the somewhat tired debate between Bishop, Bourriaud and Kester on the different types of relations between artist and viewer appearing in participa- tory art works. In particular, Brecht’s call to purge the relationship of both empathy and ‘hypnotic tensions’ excites me (as a response to Bishop’s Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics) as does the no- tion of the cigar smoking spectator, consciously critical but never forced to become actor in the here and now. Finally, his thoughts on the need for the theatre to be cunning appeals, the power/authority play in which the theatre should defer to its audience as entertain- er, whilst still subtly proving the necessity of its level of expertise.
Your current collaboration with Sam Ely and Lynne Harris, Unre- alised Potential, particularly struck a chord with me, as it seems to throw into question the sticky issues of vested interest and exper- tise, demanding a commitment of both time and money from the participating viewer, and existing physically in their subsequent daily life, rather than for the duration of the isolated exhibition visit only. In its directness, the work also seems to me to be shown with a somewhat dry humour, comparable to Brecht’s tone of approach.
I’m curious to know more about your intention behind this work as well as your opinions on participation in general, and would be very grateful if we could communicate a little further either through email, telephone or face to face. I will be down to visit the exhibition in Sunderland, so perhaps if you have a few minutes to spare we could arrange to talk then. I understand you may be too busy to agree to this, and even a single short response via Fa- cebook or email would be very much appreciated.
I look forward to hearing from you. Many thanks
October 19, 2010
Yes, we can chat in Sunderland. Funny just looking over your text again, part from the collaborative project with Sam & Lynn, there’s probably other works and projects I’ve under- taken that may interest you such as my ‘art-tour’ works that I’ve collaborated on with artists Len Horsey. The majority of my works are constantly seeking and exploring the relation to the artists intention and the audience’s perception, this area is being somewhat explored and examined in my current PhD.
Brecht has been a continuing reference in certain areas of my practice over the last ten years and has become increasingly relevant to the contextualisation of what I deem as ‘new per- formance art’. Which attempts to furthers the ongoing, on- going i.e. Bishop’s Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics…
I guess ‘decisive theatre’ attempts to further the ‘cunning’. I think of the ‘Mind Projected Cinema’ piece I created for the Whitstable Biennale and Sophie Calle’s ‘Ghosts’.
Humor is a great equaliser and a good critical reflex.
October 23, 2010
In response to your last message, I’m also curious about what you deem as ‘new performance art’, and wonder if you can tell me more about the characteristics you would give to this and the in- tentions that are driving it?
I must say, I’m still very much in the early stages of trying to tease out just what I’m trying to get at here, so hadn’t wanted to pester you with questions until I knew what those questions were. But perhaps if you’ve time, I could run a few things by you?
Thinking again of Unrealised Potential (and perhaps trying to po- sition it amongst Brecht’s Marxist ideology on the one hand and the search for a ‘democratic art’ on the other) what do you think are the social and political implications of this work?
I’ve not managed to find too much information about the respons- es that you have had to the work; aside from the Norman Clayture and Brian Reed/Len Horsey purchase, who has been buying the proposals? Has there been much interest from people who would not usually consider themselves ‘players’ in the art world/process?
Could you also comment on your reactions to the responses that you’ve had? I love the fact that the first proposal was a Liam Gil- lick one, considering his place within the ‘relational/participatory’ feud – what do you think of the way in which this proposal has been realised, as well as the reactions that its had? Are there any other proposals that have been bought or other responses that you have had to the work that you find particularly interesting?
I’m sorry this is turning into rather a long email! This work has just really got me asking questions. If this is a bit too much to ask, don’t worry about getting back to me now. It would be great to chat in Sunderland, and hopefully by then I’ll have a clearer idea of just what it is I’m trying to get at. Thanks again for responding, I look forward to hearing what you’ve to say!
October 25, 2010
I hope all is good, no worries, these seem like very interesting questions that need dome serious thought, I’ll endeavor to reflect on them over the next couple of weeks so we can have a chat in Sunderland.
Yeah ‘new performance’ is more of an attitude/approach that’s founded in contemporary visual art rather than those who deem themselves ‘performance artists’ it comes from an orientation to extent the parameters of the/a work/project. I guess it’s from those who like me trained as painters then moved into multi-media be- fore settling into a polymathic/interdisciplinary practice/approach.
In terms of what really interested me in Brecht was his theory of ‘Epic Theatre’ and his contradictory use of ‘Dialectical Thinking’, I can elaborate later. Though I guess it’s about the attempt to re- veal conditions rather than getting caught up in the reproduction, and developing an awareness of constant shifting/flux of modes authorship/validation etc…
November 18, 2010
Just thought I’d let you know that I made the trip down to Sunder- land last week to see Unrealised Potential – it was really refresh- ing to actually see it in the flesh, after having only read through what I could find on it. The exhibition cleared up some questions as to how the collaboration worked between you and Sam Ely & Lynne Harris, too, with the inclusion of the contract, which I found particularly good fun. The video in Planta De Anodizado was deli- cious. There was also a Peter Watkins piece in the other exhibition that was really enjoyable, with Brecht’s influence ringing through. Do you know the one? I was lucky enough to walk in on the film loop during a section with no TV crew, so really got the sense of dubi- ety, of there being something off kilter in the acting, the reason of which didn’t become clear until the microphone’s sudden appear- ance. I’m not sure it would have been so ambiguous if it weren’t for the work being in french with subtitles, interesting how that seemed to help it work.
November 19, 2010
I hope all is good, that’s great news that you were able to see the show in Sunderland, were you able to grab a copy of the Unreal- ised Potential newspaper?
The Watkin’s piece is super, I really love the whole ‘hints to the workmen’ show as a whole.
November 25, 2010
Hi Hannah, Hope all is chipper, glad you grabbed a copy of the newspaper.
In terms of questions, can you send them to us again. It looks like I won’t really be able to meet up until late Feb 2011.
November 25, 2010
Thanks a lot. The questions have changed slightly with ongoing personal research (…)
As well as being really exciting in relation to the dissertation I’m working on this year, Unrealised Potential has really had a mas- sive impact on the way I’ve been thinking about my own work, and so I do appreciate the chance to discuss some of the issues it throws up with you, and must thank you again for taking the time out of your busy schedule.
November 25, 2010
No worries, these are all good questions. I’ll chip away at one at a time and get that to you.
Here’s my attempt at question 1:
December 1, 2010
What do you think are the social and political implications of Unrealised Potential?
I guess it’s the same as any work it is dependant upon the en- gagement of the audience, I’m a firm believer in that artists only really make 50% of the work (and even this could be contested), the audience (in the widest sense) makes the other 50%.
Artists Activity + Audience Involvement = The Work* *The Equation Part 1, Mike Chavez-Dawson, 2010.
As artists we have intentions/motivations behind what we make or present, how an audience interprets/engages with that is a nebu- lous area, fraught with challenges. It is nebulous as we (artists) struggle against institutional didacticism. This struggle is a criti- cal/creative challenge in that we what to communicate (put for- ward an idea) but not in a heavy-handed fashion but a subtle (sub- lime) or even poetic way, we might say we map the terrain. And as we know this is open for navigation/interpretation (the journey is the destination). For me, ‘Potential Hits’ via ‘Unrealised Projects’ to ‘Unrealised Potential’ is a way of somehow communicating the problematic nature of this challenge. Also, this piece is transpar- ently collaborative and the other artists (Sam Ely & Lynn Harris) will have their differing views and opinions to this question, let alone my answers. That said the piece is embryonic so in reality to answer its social or political implications is difficult, may be in a few years time we might have a clearer picture of any impact. Saying that it had the largest attendance of the year at Corner- house 24k, plus an array of media coverage (local press and a bit of art press). Plus, more importantly you have cited it as having an impact on your practice.
But at a push from my perspective, socially it presents a model of potential non-hierarchical collaboration, and politically an alter- native model for potential sustainable participation. There’s cer- tainly a lot of potential.
December 1, 2010
Here are answers to the rest of your questions, I haven’t really got time to elaborate – so apologises.
How would you describe the nature of your approach to interac- tion with the viewer?
The intention of my approach to ‘interaction’ is to be enticingly clear, whilst allowing space for consideration.
Nevertheless, this can change depending on the work and context. However, I feel with Unrealised Potential this is the case. It is a simple idea that has complexity.
What are your thoughts on the way in which Planta De Anodizado has been realised, given Liam Gillick’s place in the ‘relational/ participatory art feud’? With his practice often aiming to pro- vide a backdrop for interaction, (and with Nicholas Bourrioud’s substantial writing on his approach spurring critique by Claire Bishop and in turn a hot response from Gillick himself…) what do you think are the implications of putting a proposal of his through the processes involved in your project, and have you heard any re- sponse from Gillick about the process or the resulting exhibition?
Wow, that is several questions there. When I originally received Gillick’s proposal it was about 8 years ago, so probably, a little be- fore the whole Relational Aesthetics thing, let alone Claire Bishop feud, which I wouldn’t really say is a feud, but more of a debate. I feel the ‘intention’ of Gillick’s work in general is interesting as it proposes to be a backdrop for discussion and interaction. Wheth- er this is achieved or genuinely the aim is debatable, but I am drawn to the endeavour. In addition, it is this ‘idea’ that I felt I was putting through. I had various correspondences with Gillick over the realisation of his idea, and it started of civil, got a little volatile, and then resolved itself, normal collaborative activity. There was never any need for direct endorsement, but he did email to say he felt the overall show looked great.
Are there any other proposals that have been bought or other re- actions that you have had to the work that you find particularly interesting?
I feel all the proposals and responses so far have been intrigu- ing, it’s great to see such diversity. I’m particularly fond of Bren O’Callaghan’s approach and interpretation of Harry Hills proposal to recreate Cruickshank’s The Worship of Bacchus with current al- coholic recovered celebrities. This ‘realisation’ will feature part of a group show titled ‘The People You Are Not’ at Cornerhouse for Jan 201. Here he has reduced the original work to six scenes that in turn are being created into miniature ‘Victorian Toy Theatre’s’, but what I really like is that he has involved six local illustrators to collaborate on the portrayal of the infamous celebrities and thea- tre’s. One viewer did say they felt what they imagined mentally couldn’t really be furthered by a physical rendition of the idea.
How has Bertolt Brecht influenced the way in which you tackled this project, as well as your work as a whole?
Funny but I do not think with a Brecht filter, it is more to do with his fearless tenacity. His ideas on the ‘Epic Theatre’ have had a major influence on me as a whole.
It would be lovely to read your final dissertation. Kind regards, Mike Chavez-Dawson
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 Chavez-Dawson M, Harris L, Ely S, Unrealised Poten- tial, 2010; shown at Northern Gallery for Contemporary Arts; Hannah Harkes, 2010.
Personal photograph from gallery visit
 Chavez-Dawson M, Harris L, Ely S, Unrealised Poten- tial, 2010; shown at Northern Gallery for Contemporary Arts; Hannah Harkes, 2010.
Personal photograph from gallery visit
 Chavez-Dawson M, Ely S, Harris L, Unrealised Poten- tial, 2010; shown at Northern Gallery for Contemporary Arts; Hannah Harkes, 2010.
Personal photograph from gallery visit
 Horsey L, Reed B, Planta de Anadizado, 2010; shown at Northern Gallery for Contemporary Arts; Hannah Harkes,
2010. Personal photograph from gallery visit
 Horsey L, Reed B, Planta de Anadizado, 2010; shown at Northern Gallery for Contemporary Arts; Hannah Harkes,
2010. Personal photograph from gallery visit
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