Counter-spectacle

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The word ‘Spectacle’ is still commonly used in solemn pronouncements about our omni-mediated present, continuing on from the moment in 1967 when Guy Debord described what he saw as the culmination of capitalist society. The Spectacle described in his The Society of the Spectacle is the all-encompassing organisation of relations by images, stupefying us into an uncritical passivity; a massive organising force intent on the accumulation of capital and the effacement of reality. But, for me, the word evokes something contrastingly small, almost unseen but nonetheless thrilling.

In the 1970s, US performance artist Stuart Sherman began staging what he called ‘Spectacles’ for small audiences, and in public spaces. The routines invariably involved a small foldout table and a dozen or so random objects – empty pocket miscellany and cheap trinkets, the flotsam and jetsam of Debord’s society of mass consumerism. Sherman, showing little emotion, and not interacting with the viewer, would arrange and rearrange these objects in a speedy series of gestures lasting several minutes. Leaving onlookers in a grey area between an interpretative impulse and the pure enjoyment of seeing a pattern forming, if only fleetingly, the Spectacles were effectively strange magic shows, where no one could be certain just what had been made to appear or disappear. Not unlike a Jacques Tati gag, Sherman placed himself in relation to his objects, and each object in relation to all the others, in ways that surprised and tricked the eye, upending common perception and rewiring their rules of use.

The intensely idiosyncratic form that Sherman’s spectacles took were an epiphany to me when I first saw them, allowing me to better understand the pleasures I take in works of music, film and literature that I cannot explain by their plot interest, or any ‘meaning’, or even by reference to common expressive elements such as lighting, acting or writing. I became assured of the fact that something can work through repetitions, variations, permutations, surprise and speed on a larger spatiotemporal-audiovisual level. And that this does not simply betray a cold formalism but a way of emancipating everyday sights and sounds into an array of inventive arrangements suggested by their own shape and weight; not bent into some extraneous framework, such as those devised by the serialists in twentieth century musical composition.

Which leads me to think that the sort of small spectacles that Sherman enacted might be the best form of defence against the homogenising and stultifying force of the Spectacle as Debord envisioned it. Sherman’s approach, which extends to his writing and drawings too, is to crack open the appearances of the everyday and unpack just what is loaded in there in order to activate them in fresh ways. As Sherman himself explained about his work: “It’s what I do, but it’s the result of developing strategies for personal salvation, for escape from the intolerable, from certain existential cul-de-sacs.” With a view to reinvigorating contemporary experience, the arts and society, it might be the small moves that matter most.

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