In Terms Of

The Emaciated Spectator

The Kitchen L.A.B.: “Audience”
Monday, September 30, 2013
The Kitchen, New York

A. K. Burns presents her Poetry Parade (photograph by Christopher Howard)

What is an audience? Anyone and anything, really: concert ticket holders, participants in a political rally, a random gathering of passersby. A filmmaker or playwright certainly wants to fill theater seats, and an author aspires to place on a best-seller and/or best-of list. An art dealer seeks both wealthy collectors and gallery foot traffic, and an artist desires the respect of fellow artists or the attention of a powerful curator. Yet a notion of audience is fluid. Artists watch movies, curators curry favor with collectors, and authors read each other’s books. If everyone is an artist, as Joseph Beuys proclaimed, and everybody’s a curator, as the mass media tells us, then anyone can be an audience.

A crowd of approximately thirty to forty people  gathered in the Kitchen’s main performance space to hear what two artists, a choreographer, and a critic had to say about the term audience. Moderated by Tim Griffin, the organization’s executive director and chief curator, the panel was part of an ongoing series of events, called The Kitchen L.A.B., that explores a single word or concept (the letters stand for language, art, and bodies). Last fall the theme was “presence.” The current one is “audience.” So what happened?

The artist A. K. Burns talked about a few of her projects that were social in nature. Created with A. L. Steiner, Community Action Center (2010) was “feminist porn that used friends’ bodies in place of paid surrogates”; one online preview called the work “sociosexual.” Burns and Steiner had purposely withheld the footage from the internet since its creation—though Video Data Bank can rent you a screening or exhibition copy. In late spring they took Community Action Center on a short tour, like a rock band would, to exhibition spaces across the United States, which included a potluck dinner in someone’s living room. “We slowed it down,” Burns said, “to a car driving into your town delivering the video to you in person.” I was disappointed, though, that the artist didn’t tell us about the audiences’ reactions. Did people have fun or were they grossed out? I suppose Burns and Stein are saving these stories for their October 10 event at the Kitchen called “What ‘Community Action Center’ Did Last Summer: X-Cuntry Tour Recap and Live Scored Screening!”

Still from A. K. Burns and A. L. Steiner, Community Action Center, 2010, video with color and sound (artwork © A. K. Burns and A. L. Steiner)

Burns also touched on her Touch Parade (2011), an installation of short videos that she considers to be “covers” or “memes” of preexisting fetish clips. Some actual fetish videos are censored, she said, but others aren’t. She didn’t identify any fetish in particular, but I imagine that representations of certain obsessions, such as crush films, are illegal but others aren’t.1 One would assume that censorship would have been a hugely important for this panel—the act of censoring consists of one audience restricting access to other audiences—but the topic wasn’t picked up.

A third work from Burns was Poetry Parade, a live feminist reading group that took place in the permanent-collection galleries at the Museum of Modern Art, with a single text chosen for a single artwork (Gertrude Stein, for example, was paired with Agnes Martin). I’m not sure how participants reacted or if museum goers were allowed to join—Burns didn’t specify. I was curious about her use of “parade” in titles of works, since it implies a moving, colorful spectacle and a stationary and usually public audience. Here in New York, we have all kinds of parades, from the traditional ones celebrating Thanksgiving and St. Patrick’s Day to the wilder events for Gay Pride and Halloween.

Burns theorized audience as both a “temporary community” and a “body in space,” which sounded like the typical phenomenological hyperbole you’d expect from an art panel. Later, during the Q&A, she considered herself and her inner circle to be much more important viewers of her work than a typical gallery goer. That comment initially came off as selfish, but I wonder if most artists would say the exact same thing about the audience for their work.

Reading a prepared text was Maria Hassabi, a director, choreographer, and performer who stages work in both museums and public spaces. What struck me was her varied approaches to audiences: sometimes she doesn’t give them seats, while other times she positions them physically close to performers. Hassabi also brought up what might be a crucial notion for the L.A.B. series: she is rarely surprised who her audience is—meaning people who attend cultural events—though she of course appreciates their attention. Her observation reminded me of Joe Turnbull’s recent post on the Frieze Blog, which examined an Arts Council England report on museum attendance and demographics. Turnbull had this to say:

Does free admission guarantee accessibility to art? It’s now nearly twelve years since it became mandatory for publicly funded museums and galleries in the UK to offer free admission. Whilst visitor numbers have rocketed, studies have shown that the demographics of visitors have barely shifted. In essence, those from low-income backgrounds are still massively underrepresented.

When folks in the arts talk about broadening their audience, it might be worth asking if they mean increasing their numbers or diversifying their constituents? Race, class, sexuality, and other marginalized groups—as well as issues of funding—are certainly major issues when dealing with audiences; I hope future Kitchen L.A.B.s will address these topics.

Three audience members emulated Barack Obama in Liz Magic Laser’s Living Newspaper (photograph by Christopher Howard)

Liz Magic Laser, an artist who involves audiences in her work and stages performances in public places, took her microphone into the audience. “When was the last time you had trouble persuading someone to do something?” she asked two people chosen at random, and “When was the last time you had to stand your ground?” she asked two more. After receiving vague answers of a possible opportunity and a moment of doubt, she had three respondents come forward and pose like President Barack Obama in a photograph from the Politics section of the New York Times website that was projected onto the screen behind the panelists. (The federal government shutdown began earlier that day.) Laser took a few photographs of the impromptu performers—as did a handful of audience members—and asked them if they empathized with the president. Laser then explained the early-twentieth-century origins of the work, which she called Living Newspaper, in which theater people and journalists in the Soviet Union collaborated to bring news to illiterate populations. The genre was imported to the United States, she said, in the 1930s as a Works Progress Administration project. When Laser resurrected the piece for the Swiss Institute a year ago as part of a commission from Forever & Today, she encountered hostile reactions from the audience that felt the artist was aggressive and irresponsible. Can anyone tell me what happened?

Dan Fox, senior editor at Frieze, read a short paper on being a writer in the visual arts, beginning with an anecdote about how his parents read his writing but don’t understand it. I sympathize completely—my mother has told me the same thing for years. Without the proper background or shared cultural references, the subject matter of art writing can certainly be ineffable to many. “Who are my readers?” Fox asked rhetorically. Sometimes he publishes something and experiences silence: “A tumbleweed blows through the room,” he deadpanned. Other times he’ll get a response from an artist, which he appreciates, even if it’s just a note about a factual error.2 Artists, dealers, and curators take note—it’s totally okay to send a thank-you email to your reviewer!

Fox described the odds and sods of art publishing. A person once described Frieze as a good music magazine disguised as an art journal—it indeed publishes excellent stuff on popular and underground music—but Fox noted that people always say there’s too much of this, not enough of that. As an editor his job is to ensure that someone in São Paolo or Rome can relate to a review of an exhibition in New York. Even his professional identity shifts depending on his audience: to a customs official, for example, he is a journalist. In his spare time Fox plays music with friends, which he stressed was neither an art project nor an art band. Rather, they do what they do because they enjoy it. “Amateurism liberates us from certain audiences,” he said.

This last idea excited Burns, who pressed Fox to say more about it. He didn’t and there wasn’t even a need—his pronouncement was simple and crystal clear. Griffin commented about changing audiences and the mobility of public spaces, but his words became too abstract and my own thoughts began to drift. Laser jumped in to reveal that getting strangers to do something is as uncomfortable as it is for those strangers to be asked to do something. That certainly explains the awkwardness during her Living Newspaper enactment earlier: not only the artist’s timidity in her role as director and the participants’ stiffness for being put on the spot, but also those of us in the crowd who were uneasily watching the action. Fox observed that parties for new books can also be awkward, when the applause given the author of a text that few have read differs remarkably from accolades given immediately after a dance or musical performance. Hassabi relayed an interesting saying in the theater world: “That was a strange audience.” She explained it as a response to the nature of the performance itself, displacing the difficulties actors or dancers might have had onto the crowd.

My thoughts started to drift again when Burns opined on the speed of the internet, trolls, liking stuff, and texting and emailing instead of talking. The weak moderation and mostly trifling conversation made me think about what audiences want from panels like this one: speakers who provide interesting, appropriate anecdotes, who explain the nuances behind their work, and who most of all stop worrying about appearing “smart” and really dig into the topic. Since the art world loves to fetishize failure, I’d love to see more panelists loosen up and say things that may initially appear “dumb” but eventually lead to a new insight. And I’m sure audiences would appreciate hearing more direct, unapologetic, and occasionally funny points of view rather than slog through the same old pretentious abstractions.

An audience member asked a good question—“Is there an ideal audience?”—but no one offered a substantial answer. A fellow in the audience with a foreign accent gave a verbose monologue about considering an audience individually instead of as a group. “We have to be very delicate,” he said, “about how we speak about those terms.” His was a strange thought, since it seems uncontroversial to make generalizations about an audience as a group without denying each member his or her status as a unique person. Griffin wisely closed the panel at this point.

Sign posted at a Yeah Yeah Yeahs concert at Webster Hall in New York (photographer unknown)

As one last word Griffin noted that Jacques Rancière’s essay “The Emancipated Spectator” is almost a decade old. Tonight I felt like an emaciated spectator. Did this panel come any closer to defining what an audience is or what it might be? Not really. Yet the idea of “audience” is definitely worth exploring. I love to see him organize future Kitchen L.A.B. panels that draw from experts in sociology and psychology, marketing and advertising, politics and law. Hearing about the work of band bookers and club promoters in relationship to artists and curators would also be informative. Museums are hiring directors of visitor experience—what’s up with that? Hopefully those people will rein in museum guards who harass visitors taking photos in the galleries. Similarly, how should audiences react when popular rock bands like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs chastise their audience for experiencing a concert from behind their iToys? Thinking about live versus recorded events—can someone tell us how many people actually watch talks that are live streamed or prerecorded? People love complaining about the high admission prices for New York museums—would talking about it help? (Probably not.)

I’m not sure that Griffin needs to call on artists again. Burns and Laser make fascinating, even important work but many times seem only to engage and occasionally overturn the dichotomy of active producer and passive consumer—a decades-old, old-fashioned approach if there ever was one. Putting aside social-practice artists, how about getting creators on a panel whose work is about the audience. In particular I think of Eva and Franco Mattes’s Emily’s Video (2012), which consists of webcam videos of people watching what the artists called the “worst video ever made,” and Ann Hirsch, who has participated on a reality television dating show as herself and also vamped as an obnoxious self-made YouTube celebrity? Those are just a few ideas off the top of my head. I’m sure In Terms Of readers could think of dozens more.

In Terms Of count: 7.

1 For more information on the legality of crush films and their intersection with art, see Paul B. Jaskot, “In US v. Stevens, Supreme Court Strikes Down Law on First Amendment Grounds,” CAA News, April 22, 2010; and Linda Downs, “CAA Signs Anticensorship Amicus Brief for US v. Stevens,” CAA News, July 28, 2009.

2 For a list of possible audiences for criticism, see the fourth paragraph of Christopher Howard, “Let’s Stall the Conversation,” In Terms Of, November 17, 2011.


The Kitchen L.A.B.: A. K. Burns, Dan Fox, Maria Hassabi, and Liz Magic Laser, the Kitchen, September 30, 2013.

Dan Fox, “Audience Appreciation,” Frieze Video, February 7, 2014.

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