WHAT YOU GET IS WHAT YOU SEE
What do you really see when you see what you see? What You Get is What You See, curator Mathilde Walker-Billaud’s ongoing performance-lecture-media series at UnionDocs in Williamsburg, explores the concept of spectatorship in all its permutations, configurations, and manifestations.
So far, the series has hosted five guests – the writer Luc Sante, DJ-artist Jace Clayton (AKA DJ /rupture), dancer-choreographer Nora Chipaumire, and artist-performers David Levine and Ant Hampton – all of whom have presented talks on what being a spectator (of art; culture; life) means and has meant to them.
Mathilde, originally from France, says that the idea for the series sprouted from her curiosity about how artists see and process other works of art.
“I’m interested in the artist’s gaze,” she says. “Because they’re working with visual material, they see the world a little bit differently, but they also process it a lot. So they need to be very much attentive to what they see. The idea was to ask them to share their thoughts about what they see or what they experience.”
But spectatorship isn’t limited to the ways we take in art. The general cultural landscape, she says, is overrun with signs and spectators, whether they immediately register or not.
“We’re submerged in images, in signs, and sometimes I feel like we’re more interested in appearances than in substance. There’s a lack of discussion about them. I mean, we see them, and I’m sure that we process them at some point, but how, I’m not sure. So the idea behind the series is to create a critical space where we can start to talk about that – about everyday life, all the things we experience.”
Presentations so far have ranged from explorations of cultural phenomena that live and die by the spectator, to rallying cries against lazy, irresponsible spectatorship.
Luc Sante, author of the book Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York, spoke about tabloid culture in ‘60s and ‘70s New York, when flashy news and gossip on stands around the city dominated the sightlines of the passerby.
Nora Chipaumire took a different tack, grappling directly with the very notion of the spectator.
“In Nora Chipaumire’s presentation, she completely destroyed the concept of spectatorship,” says Mathilde. “She compared it to the expat experience. For her, a spectator is someone who is totally ‘outside’ of the experience. In Zimbabwe, where she’s from, she says, ‘We are the thing. We are participants. We are never spectators.’ For her, the spectator is a western concept. So she was destroying the concept of the series in a way, but it was interesting to have this perspective – to see this series as a western concept.
“She brought up the ideas of participation and responsibility; she’s always provoking a situation where the spectator has to be a participant. And, usually, the western audience hates it. She comes very close to them, or she whispers close to them or breathes very loudly, and you can see that the audience hates it. She destroys the concept of ‘there’s a show, and [the audience] is watching, and is passive, and they’ll process it, but aren’t responsible for any of it.’”
The participation and responsibility – or even culpability – of the spectator is now a particularly relevant and loaded topic for unpacking.
Says Mathilde, “I’m thinking, now, of inviting someone to talk about satire, in the context of the [Charlie Hebdo] attacks. You know – what you do you when you’re faced with shocking images?”
I comment on the title of the series – about how much meaning seems to be embedded in the word “get,” now that Mathilde’s inverted the expression.
“Of course, it’s derived from ‘what you see it what you get’ – it’s a concept that comes up in the computer sciences. In coding, you know, if you code that, you’re going to get that. But… what is in between?”
Additional dates for this series in 2015 to be announced — http://www.uniondocs.org/spectatorship/
Patrick Reiher is a writer based in New York City.