Uncertain Spectator(s)

As a counterpart to the exhibiton Uncertain Spectator opening on November 18, 2010 at the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) in Troy, NY, select philosophers, cultural theorists, and artists will blog on the prevalence of anxiety in current events, as well as its expression in philosophy and contemporary art.


Are you familiar with this term? I suppose I am a bit slow on the pick-up of trendy acronyms, as I was introduced to it just last week. But it is instantaneously familiar and useful. In the event you are not already in-the-know, I will ensure you will not longer be left out.

e.g., my recent introduction to the term:

“She seems to have a penchant for surrounding herself with charismatic assholes.”

“Yeah, she seems to have a serious condition of FOMO.”

“FOMO, what’s that?”

“Fear of Missing Out.”

“Oh my god, how did I not know about that term before? Have you known it for long? How did you learn about it?”


e.g., Performance Art: 

Performance Art exploits the Art World’s endemic FOMO. You have to know about it. You have to be there for the real thing. A photographic document is produced of the event—not to stand in for what happened, but to give you a taste of what you missed. You can count your friends and frenemies in the blurred edges of the audience. But don’t fret. After the selected images enter the history books and remain there for a few decades, you can claim to have been there. You’ve heard enough hearsay to recreate the event in your mind. Memories will grow fuzzy and few will remain to testify whether your presence was real or a FOMO fabrication.

e.g., between one place and another:

The value of global cultural mobility is diagnostic of our collective FOMO. In exhibition press releases, the names of the participating artists are accompanied by country codes. Preferably two or more at once: born in one place (if possible, a remote, rural, ethnic, and/or authentic geography), and living between two others (must be urban cultural centers, better at least two separate countries, and even better, two different hemispheres).

My FOMO tactic is not to stay in any single place for longer than 6 months. This way, whenever I am greeted by friends with, “Where have you been?” I am able to simultaneously provoke FOMO vacillations within myself—Caitlin, you’ve been missing out on everything here—and my friends—what has Caitlin been up to while I’ve been living the grind in ______?

e.g., Uncertain Spectator:

You have missed out. Or you will soon have missed out. You are plagued by FOMO because you have not made the journey to see “Uncertain Spectator” at EMPAC, despite the urgency of its subject and the caliber of the exhibiting artists. It is in Troy, NY, which is not so far (from some places). But undeniably out-of-the-way. You replied to the invitation saying you would attend—just as you said you would attend that exhibition in Berlin / Oslo / Torino / Shanghai / Bogotá / Miami / Deep-in-Brooklyn’s-new-Chinatown. All happening in the same week.

Thankfully, there is ample documentation. And this blog. And another exhibition opening soon in Seville, Spain, on a similar topic: “Publics and Counterpublics” at Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo. Or better yet, you should allow your FOMO to drive you to Troy to see “Uncertain Spectator” before you travel to Seville, because then you can see both. And this one was First. And you can have been both there and there.

- Caitlin Berrigan

Posted at 11:24am and tagged with: anxiety, one column, FOMO, performance, acronym, fear, art, submission,.

David Levine, Spectator, Paul McCarthy, Los Angeles, 1971, 2010

The main characters of David Levine’s series, Specters, are not camera-ready. They are incidental evidence of this formative moment when the visual arts cannibalized all art disciplines and called it, Performance Art.

Levine says, “The idea is to think about the audience, who are at once constitutive of the main event—this was the breakthrough of performance art—and yet are completely disposable relative to the ‘main event’ itself. They are forgotten actors, straining to learn a new part.”1

They did not come dressed to be photographed; to be forever preserved as The Witnesses. They gather in the shadows of iconic performance art documents, endlessly circulating as the primary visual memory representing an event made history. In Specters, the audience is isolated from the ‘art spectacle.’ Their complexions are mottled by the moiré of the art history books from which Levine lifted them; their lack of focus deepens their mystery.

David Levine, Spectators, Valie Export, Vienna, 1968, 2010

Levine brings new attention to these characters whose role was indispensible to the formation of contemporary art audiences. It seems he is motivated partly by nostalgia for this critical turn in art history, coinciding with his early childhood. He was too young to be there.

Yet there is also irreverence to Levine’s motivations. Specters questions the emergence of the ‘Performance Art Document’ as an orchestrated object in and of itself, for which the audience is instrumentalized, coached and socialized to represent the spectacle and its reception to subsequent art audiences who missed out—or who are not yet born. Decades later, the earnest gazes and unselfconsciousness of the 1970’s audience seem almost quaint, as they reflect and absorb the tension of this experimental moment.

David Levine, Spectator, Marina Abramovic, Amsterdam, 1977, 2010

Yet I presume that many of these characters know who they are. With the exception of some unsuspecting street audiences, I imagine these self-satisfied individuals are able to identify themselves as accessories to the iconicity: “I was there.” Imagine a lecture at the Guggenheim, say Joan Jonas is showing slides of a mirror performance in downtown Manhattan. “Look, there’s Robert,” Roselee says. “And that’s me in the puffy coat.”

Audiences have become primed for all photographable events. They, too, perform for the Document. They are aware of being there. Recently, I shared with a curator a photograph of a performance of mine in Berlin. He noticed a figure in a dark coat behind the two women caught in an embrace, transferring a mouthful of milk from one to the other. “Oh look,” he said, “there’s David Levine.”

David Levine, Spectator, Joan Jonas, New York, 1970, 2010

-Caitlin Berrigan


1. From e-mail correspondence with the artist, 01.11.11.

David Levine lives and works in Berlin and New York. He is represented by Feinkost Gallery, Berlin and Francois Ghebaly Gallery, Los Angeles.

Posted at 4:21pm and tagged with: anxiety, one column, Performance, spectator, submission,.