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.

Posted at 12:21pm and tagged with: anxiety, smoking, one column, consumerism, submission,.


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,.

When uncertainty and anxiety are the driving forces of my art practice, it is exciting to see entire exhibitions devoted to the subject, such as “Uncertain Spectator” at EMPAC and “Publics and Counterpublics” at Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo. What follows is a brief excerpt from an essay on the conceptual tactics of anxiety that drive my art practice.


Anxiety is a noncathartic feeling that has had no legacy of inspiring Greek tragedies, operas or epic novels. It is among literary theorist Sianne Ngai’s taxonomy of “ugly feelings” that “could be said to give rise to a noncathartic aesthetic: art that produces and foregrounds a failure of emotional release (another form of suspended ‘action’) and does so as a kind of politics” (2005: 9). Ngai traces the spatialization of anxiety not as a matter of interiority, but as a vertiginous in-between of unarticulated insides and outsides. The self-reflective agitation of anxiety, she argues with some contempt, has become the “distinctive ‘feeling-tone’ of intellectual inquiry itself” in the modern era (Ngai 2005: 215). Anxious intellectual inquiry turns rationality into an inconclusive oscillation. It is the antecedent to absurdity, which is similarly noncathartic in its complete suspension of reason and failure to cohere.

I am more interested in disruption as an artistic strategy rather than in the catharsis of shock, which often narrows the nuance of response. The intention to shock is a form of manipulation, funneling the audience to one margin or another and narrowing the nuance of response. More often than not, the most interesting issues raised by shocking artworks are silenced because the audience is preoccupied with the emotional tumult of offense, the smugness of identifying with the naughty perpetrator, or disinterest because the artwork is not extreme enough. Polarization fails to recognize the tendency of individuals to waver, to be hypocritical and uncertain, to fail even amidst our best intentions, to be stumped. Certainly, épater la bourgeoisie is at times the necessary and effective approach, and shock is measured with an entirely subjective Geiger counter. But for the insidiousness of the biopolitics I address in my practice, discomfort and ambiguity are richer political territory. The self-reflective agitation of anxiety provides no emotional release. Instead, rational intellectual inquiry oscillates without conclusion.

Art that reveals the boundaries of our anxiety without pushing us to one edge or another instead invites confusion, and perhaps opens into transformation through contact, contagion and encounter. In my art practice, I endeavor to develop sites of potential with concern and responsibility, yet the resolution of intellectual inquiry becomes the task of the audience. It offers discursive conflict without final reconciliation. The artwork may not occasion satisfaction or offer the absolution of guilt through participation. But in revealing layers of ambiguous emotions, it opens a space to confront uncertainty and form responsibilities in an embroiled world of permeable, distributed biota. Anxiety is illuminating.


Excerpted from Life Cycle of a Common Weed: Reciprocity, Anxiety and the Aesthetics of Noncatharsis, Caitlin Berrigan, 2009.

Ngai, Sianne. 2005. Ugly Feelings. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

- Caitlin Berrigan

Posted at 8:29am and tagged with: anxiety, one column, art, Caitlin Berrigan, submission,.

We are pleased to announce our guest blogger for this week, Caitlin Berrigan. Caitlin Berrigan is an artist who works in sculpture, video, and participatory actions to open a space of potential for confronting uncertainties within the context of social issues. She was an Agnes Gund fellow at Skowhegan and artist in residence at PROGRAM in Berlin. She holds a Master’s in visual art from MIT (2009) and a B.A. in art history and production from Hampshire College (2004). Her work has shown at the Whitney Museum, Storefront for Art & Architecture, Gallery 400 Chicago, LACMA, Lugar a Dudas Bogotà, and 0047 Gallery Oslo, and hallways, mouths, superfund sites…


Posted at 8:00am and tagged with: anxiety, one column, artist, Caitlin Berrigan, submission,.

As one of the first official acts of 2011, Virginia created House Resolution 557 which proposes the use of alternative currencies should the Federal Reserve go bankrupt. Although the Financial Crisis is said to be over, a great deal of insecurity remains about the solvency of the Federal Reserve. A few clauses from the resolution:

WHEREAS, in the event of hyperinflation, depression, or other economic calamity related to the breakdown of the Federal Reserve System, for which the Commonwealth is not prepared, the Commonwealth’s governmental finances and Virginia’s private economy will be thrown into chaos, with gravely detrimental effects upon the lives, health, and property of Virginia’s citizens, and with consequences fatal to the preservation of good order throughout the Commonwealth;

WHEREAS, in light of the possible instability of the Federal Reserve System, proposals for states and their citizens to adopt an alternative currency consisting of gold or silver, or both, are receiving increasing attention throughout the United States, as evidenced by bills that have been or are being introduced in the legislatures of the States of Georgia, Indiana, Montana, New Hampshire, and South Carolina;

WHEREAS, the adoption of an alternative currency consisting of gold or silver, or both, would not destabilize the present monetary and banking systems, the Commonwealth’s governmental finances, or Virginia’s private economy, because it would not compel or commit the Commonwealth or her citizens to employ such alternative currency to the exclusion of the Federal Reserve System’s currency immediately, but would merely make the alternative currency available, and enable it to be used in competition with and preference to the Federal Reserve System’s currency, to the degree that the need for such use became apparent; and

WHEREAS, the United States Congress, the U.S. Department of the Treasury, and the Federal Reserve System have taken and are preparing to take no action to provide the United States with an alternative to the Federal Reserve System’s currency, in the likely event that the latter would be destroyed through hyperinflation;

Below are the three pages of Viriginia House Resolution:

- Emily Zimmerman, Assistant Curator, EMPAC

Posted at 8:00am and tagged with: anxiety, one column, submission,.