Without Spectators There is No Performance
‘Perception is not something that happens to us, or in us. It is something we do’ (Alva Noë, 2004)
In Alva Noë’s experiential model of perception, the environment is key in enabling humans to make sensory contact with the world around them. It rejects the widespread view (in philosophy and science) that perception is a process that takes place in the brain, and constructs a representation of the outside world. Instead, perception is something that impacts the whole body, it is a process that guides our actions, emotions and behaviours.
Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, explores the body’s potential in perception in his Tate Modern exhibition, In Real Life. Eliasson is the godfather of sensory art, creating experiences that centralise the visitor within artwork environments. The presence of the participant is often detriment to activating the magic behind his work, often resulting in a collective sensory exchange. This article will explore different experiential models of perception, through select artworks from In Real Life.
In 1934, the philosopher John Dewey published his influential book, Art as Experience. In his definition of the aesthetics of art, he rejects the idea of art as an object, describing it instead as an intensified experience (2). The actual work of art is the perceptual experience needed to encounter it, and this is not just about looking. A striking artwork by Eliasson that helps demonstrate the philosophy of Dewey, is the Big Bang Foundation (2014).
The small dark room containing the artwork seems at first impenetrable and devoid of light. You find yourself tumbling as you try to grasp your sense of proprioception and orientate yourself through a space teeming with visitors, all searching for the root of the action. As you adjust to this new environment you become aware of a sharp flashing light in the depths of the room, and you’re all drawn to its centre like moths to the flame. The centre piece is a small water fountain, lit momentarily overhead by a bright white light that has been perfectly calculated to create a freeze frame of the water itself. It was as if you were watching a series of photographs, each one depicting an ice sculpture dancing, its position frozen in time.
Dewey’s description of art as an intensified experience is vividly reflected here. Although the audience are spectators, this is not a passive experience about simply seeing. To perceive Big Bang Foundation, one’s mind is active, and is waiting in anticipation for the next visual snapshot of the fountain. The dorsal stream in the brain, responsible for the visual guidance of action, is activated as it perceives this theatrical performance, with the knowledge that it can never be viewed the same more than once.
Alice Breemen further explores the relationship behind audience participation and the arts, in an article published in the journal Performance Philosophy. Drawing upon the theories of Grant Kester and Jacques Ranciere, she reflects upon the important role of contemporary theatre audiences in bringing the ideals of a performance alive (3). The performers provide a viewpoint exploring culture, politics and society, and the spectators perform an act of thinking critically, creating new personal knowledge with the capacity to make a change in their own or another’s life. Breemen reflects that:
‘When we start to see that the positions we occupy are quite rooted in patterns, it is the perception of our performances that can be reshaped. Regarding this standpoint it is the condition of viewing that must be recognised as an a priori position.’ (ibid)
Although she is referencing theatre, Breemen’s analysis is just as relevant to the experience of art. It is the ‘condition of viewing’ that I find integral in Eliasson’s work, in acting as a catalyst for shaping the perception of his art.
A recurring characteristic of Eliasson’s artwork is his experimentation in colour. In Your Blind Passenger (2010), visitors enter a 39 meter long corridor, which immerses them in a thick haze of fog through a journey of different transitioning colours. When you enter the space, you are immediately aware of your new environment; the temperature has dropped; your pathway has narrowed; and you are almost blinded in a saturated haze of yellow. I clutched my Aunt’s hand as I walked instinctively through the corridor, moving through yellow which became green, green which became orange, and orange that became blue.
Her hand upon mine, the ground under my feet, and the outline of the man ahead, gave my only physical bearings. Your Blind Passenger is a simple experiment that requires nothing physical but participants. Eliasson created an atmosphere which makes the properties of space explicit, and the presence of those around you detrimental to orientation. The ‘condition of viewing’ was my embodied experience, and was the intrinsic element that made this artwork.
In addition to his experimentation around sensory experience, Eliasson is well-known for his artworks exploring climate change. Just last year, he installed Ice Watch (2019), consisting of thirty large blocks of ice positioned outside Tate Modern and around London. The ice-blocks had been taken from the Nuup Kangerlua fjord in Greenland, representing the increase in icebergs as a result of global warming, a huge contribution to rising sea levels. The artist sought to bring the effects of climate change to the doors of the public, giving them first hand experience of melting ice. Just as a teacher might demonstrate a scientific phenomenon through a physical experiment, Eliasson felt the importance of experience in shifting one’s views or behaviour.
In the past ten years, environmental art has begun to emerge in trans-disciplinary research by scientists, in their recognition that it could enable them to reach new audiences and connect with the public on an emotional level. In a study that focussed on emotional responses to climate change art, it was found that positivity was key in shifting the public’s engagement and behaviour. Artworks that left participants ‘happy’, ‘hopeful’, and gave them a ‘sense of awe’, instilled feelings of inspiration and enthusiasm (4). Dystopian and negative approaches to depicting climate change left individuals feeling sad, angry and guilty, but weren’t enough to motivate a change in their behaviour or views. The study also stressed that it was important to ‘move out of the institutional space of museums into the public, in order to reach out to a bigger audience, and to avoid the connotation that art is something reserved for the educated part of the population’ (ibid).
The exhibition, In Real Life, housed a number of artworks with glacial content and reference to climate change, most of which were photography. Two large watercolour paintings showed the impact of melting ice on thin washes of colour, and the sculptural cast of an iceberg invited visitors to crawl inside it’s hollowed middle. Did Eliasson achieve his climate change goals? My own emotions were fairly neutral in this aspect of the exhibition. The photographs were interesting, and the washes of colour made me stop because they were beautiful, but they didn’t make me consider my own position in the environmental crisis. It would seem that the passive artworks in the exhibition had less of an impact on the observer, and led to a more diluted experience of self-awareness.
Rather contrastingly, Ice Watch hits the bill in the context of the study mentioned above, as it approached the public in spaces outside of the gallery, impacting them through a surprise encounter. The Guardian quoted Elliason in reflection of this work:
“Instead of fear-based narratives, you need a positive narrative to make people change their behaviour,” says Eliasson, “and that’s why I think the culture sector has a strong mandate to take on some leadership here.” (5)
I was a little surprised to read this, as large blocks of ice representing rising sea levels isn’t the most positive narrative I’ve come across, however I’ve not seen the work in the flesh so I cannot comment. I believe that the general awe, beauty and collective experience the artwork encouraged were the positive elements that drove its meaning forward. Rising sea levels as a choice of subject, is also an element of climate change that we are generally familiar with. According to the study, environmental art audience members resonate the most positively with themes close to their own beliefs or knowledge.
Eliasson’s positive narrative shone in the final room of the exhibition, which served as a research lab named ‘The Expanded Studio’. A treasure trove of information displayed from A-Z, took over the length of one wall, demonstrating the research-driven approach to art by Eliasson and his studio team. Newspaper offcuts, artwork, post-it notes, book excerpts and essays were organised around words such as ‘atmosphere’, ‘migration’ and ‘we’. Also in the room were examples of his environmental projects, demonstrating the positive benefits and process behind each work of art.
In Real Life is a successful experiment in community-driven art, with works that heighten the awareness of the spectator as the driver of experience. Eliasson demonstrates the potential of art in affecting its spectator physiologically, emotionally and socially, using simple experiments of the senses. Through these experiences I would support Noë’s model of perception that is experienced through the body, not just the brain. As Breemen goes to explore in her essay, ‘without spectators there is no performance’. The arts are a powerful tool to shape the experience of its audience, and can be used to influence positive behaviour and actions. Through select works, Eliasson has successfully enabled this transformation, and I look forward to experiencing more of this mastery as he translates it through his environmental art.
(1) Noë, A (2004) Action in Perception. The MIT Press.
(2) Dewey, J (1934) Art as Experience. Perigree Books (2009)
(3) Breeman, A (2017) Performance Philosophy: Audience participation and responsibility. Performance Philosophy. Vol 2, No 2, (pp299-309).
(4) Klockner, C, Sommer, L () Does Activist Art have the capacity to raise awareness in audiences? A study on climate change art at the ArtCOP21 Event in Paris. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. Available online.
(5) Jonze, T (2018) Icebergs ahead! Olafur Eliasson brings the frozen fjord to Britain. The Guardian. Available online