Think out of the box AAA lectures. 22 June. Ketelhuis Amsterdam The Spectator as Writer Sophie Berrebi
In the opening scene of his 1998 film Iets Op Bach (Something on Bach), the muffled laughter of the artist, Sven Augustijnen, can be heard, accompanying the jittery movements of his camera as it sweeps upwards and across the faĂ§ade of a building on the other side of the street. The camera peers into several windows to reveal here, empty offices and there, a bicycle storage. It finally reaches a set of windows that look onto a large, brightly lit room, decorated with paper garlands. A party is taking place, and a group of people move around, chatting and gesturing excitedly. The camera stops on this scene, and alternates between close ups and wider shots, moving jumpily from left to right and back, sporadically loosing balance and getting back on track. We see a fight breaking out between two girls, while a man skips around in a mock serious imitation of classical and modern ballet moves, his open shirt flapping about as he twirls and jumps. Dusk will settle into darkness, and the blackened frames of the windows will fragment even further the party scene: drinks will be drunk, conversations will continue and games will be played. Once or twice they will all get up and briefly dance together, unknowing, it seems, of the spying camera. The music has an important role here: the laughter and discussions, are drowned by the soundtrack composed of several pieces by Bach. It is out of sync with the action and thus adds another dimension to the film, an extra layer of narrative. When there is music, we are carried away in the space of fiction and when it stops, the film becomes just a recording. It has a similar function to the jazz improvisation that was used by John Cassavetes as the soundtrack for Shadows in 1959, a film that also played on different registers, between improvisation, fiction and documentary. As we watch the party in this film Iets op Bach, we are aware that there is something skewed about it: the gestures seem a little self-conscious, the emotions excessive, the lights just too bright. A few times people from the party seem to look at their reflection in the window, but are they really only smiling to themselves? This ambiguity is lifted when, half way through the film, a group of smokers steps outside onto the balcony and shouts the artistâ€™s name, waving at him. At this point, the spell of fiction is broken once and for all, and we, like the artist, can no longer enjoy a secret voyeuristic position as spectators.
At this point, we become exposed as viewers. The projection of hopes, fears, and desires that Hitchcock organised in a masterly way in Rear Window is not possible here. We are put on the spot, no longer passively following the exchange between the artist and the participants in the party: we are sucked into this complex construction composed of classical music, an artist making a film and dancers doing an improvisation. Within the exchange of gazes that leads the conversation between music, film, sounds, artist at work and dancers, this film explicitly constructs us as spectators. This work is not a closed box, and if we, as viewers, are outside of it, we are nevertheless part of this conversation. This is where the place of the spectator begins to exist. By this I do not mean the passive, voyeuristic spectator of Hollywood cinema, but the involved spectator, the ‘emancipated’ spectator as philosopher Jacques Rancière calls her or him that is, us. For Rancière, ‘Emancipation of the spectator begins when we challenge the opposition between viewing and acting1.‘The spectator’ in the cinema, the concert hall and the exhibition gallery, ‘also acts, observes, selects, compares, interprets’; connects what they have seen elsewhere, in other contexts and ‘recompose their own poem with elements of the poem that is offered to them’ 2 A truly emancipated spectator is thus both a consumer and a creator, a reader and a writer. When I write, about this film I am another spectator, and in the writing process, other disciplines and experiences are conjured. Memories of other artworks, films, books and music come to mind, and the writing process itself relates to other domains: writing can be like music or like cinema, with its flashbacks and techniques of montage. Writing like viewing requires taking some distance from the work, it necessitates that we compare it and associate it to other experiences, in order to approach it differently. We move away from the art object in order to come back to it. We need, in other terms to move constantly in and out of the box, to move along and against the grain of the work of art, the film, the music piece. Where the emancipated spectator is concerned, the in and out of the box is a continuous flow. One institutional model that corresponds to these modes of lateral thinking is the one that was created in the 19 th century with the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels, or, more broadly in France in the early 1960s as the Maisons de la culture, pluri-diciplinary, decentralised art centres born out of a profoundly democratic ideology that art and culture are necessary and should be available to all. This social utopia lives on in some places, the Barbican and the South Bank Centre in London, the Pompidou Centre in Paris, but it is less present it 1
JacquesRancière, The Emancipated Spectator, London, Verso, 2009, Page13 JacquesRancière, Le Spectateur émancipé, Paris, La fabrique editions, 2008, page 19. 2
seems in the Netherlands, where institutions are most often specialised and devoted to a single discipline: theatre, music, dance, fine arts and so on. (There are some exceptions of course, like de Brakke Grond and Smart Project space in Amsterdam). In these pluri-disciplinary models, one has to be careful with such things as mediation, wanting too much to come out of the ivory tower. When you consider the spectator as passive, he or she might just walk away; ‘attempts to suppress distance often only create more distance’, write Rancière. To think out of the box might thus be to think of the place of the viewer, and the necessary continuous move inside and outside of the work that takes place in spectatorship. But we also need to remember that emancipated spectatorship is not only a possibility, it is also a responsibility we all share.